Some readers may be old enough to remember Disney’s True Life Adventures, live-action nature films produced from the late forties until 1960, and the similar segments that were often featured on the Wide World of Disney. The Disneynature series, which was initiated in 2009 and has become an annual event coinciding with Earth Day, is like a contemporary revival of those efforts, the films done up with all the pizzazz that modern cinematic technology can provide.
The latest chapter carries a certain degree of irony, since it was the unexpected boxoffice success of “March of the Penguins” in 2005 that persuaded Disney to get back into the nature movie business in the first place. “Penguins” is quite different from that groundbreaking picture, though: it concentrates on smaller Adélie penguins rather than those of the Emperor variety and follows the series’ typical playbook in radically anthropomorphizing the subjects and adding a cutesy narration, this time written by David Fowler (which often shifts into imaginary dialogue) as well as both a zippy orchestral score (by Harry Gregson-Williams) and a collection of pop tunes (for example REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” during a courtship sequence).
The main character this time around is Steve (Ed Helms, who switches back and forth nimbly between narration and supposed monologue), a klutzy five-year old embarking on his first trip to the mating grounds. Getting a late start, he stumbles into a group of distinctly unfriendly Emperors before finally reaching his destination, where he finds most of the better spots of snow-free rock already taken and some of his competitors ready to turn thief as he tries to build his nest of little stones.
Despite the odds stacked against him, Steve—helped by lungs with which he emits a strong mating-call—attracts one of the arriving horde of females, whom Fowler names Adeline, and the couple eventually spawns two chicks, which they feed in tandem—Steve learning the proper regurgitation procedure only gingerly—and manage to keep safe until they can introduce them to open water for the trip home.
“Penguins” avoids doling out a great deal of “scientific” information, offering only as much factual data as is absolutely necessary to provide context for Steve’s progress from bachelorhood to family man. Danger, of course, cannot be ignored: the threat posed by blizzards is shown, as is that coming from various predators—skuas that try to break the penguins’ eggs in the nest or even stab and carry off chicks, killer whales that rumble by, scattering the penguins from the water, and leopard seals that target the young birds as they try to swim out to sea. Some of this material might distress younger viewers—the pursuit of one of Steve and Adeline’s chicks by a seal is particularly harrowing. But be assured all ends well.
Needless to say, the film is technically impressive. According to the credits no fewer than sixteen camerapersons were involved over the three years of filming, and as the closing credits show, they worked under difficult conditions with directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson to capture some pretty amazing footage, which editor Andy Netley has cut down to a compact seventy-six minutes.
Of course, as usual with the Disneynature releases, the company will make a donation for every ticket sold, this time to the Wildlife Conservation Network to protect penguins around the world. That should make you feel even better about plunking down the price of admission for yet another technically impressive and enjoyable installment in the Disneynature series.