Penguins: Does Disney really need to double-down on the cute when the subject is penguins?

By Thom Ernst

Rating: C-plus

Penguins is the latest of DisneyNature’s wildlife documentary features, and in many ways among the best. There’s much to admire in it, but its devotion to a family-friendly tone is often at odds with the astounding footage onscreen. 

As a documentary, Penguins offers uncompromised images of the Antarctic, both above and below the ice, as well as capturing close-up proximity shots detailing the habits of local wildlife. 

Steve the Penguin has personality. Maybe a bit too much personality.

Steve the Penguin has personality. Maybe a bit too much personality.

It adds up to a captivating and frequently breathtaking experience. But Disney is not happy leaving nature to stand on its own devices, and so it does what Disney has been doing for years—haul nature onto a storyboard to see if their writers can’t do it one better. 

The film opens on a shock of endless unblemished white; a desolate and untouched terrain of snow and ice, save for one speck moving comically across the screen. That speck, we soon discover, is an adult male penguin named Steve. 

Steve is as about as unassuming as one might imagine a penguin named Steve would be. Steve’s an Adélie penguin—a species favoured by animators and corporate marketing executives— who has fallen behind, and is now scurrying to reconnect with a convoy of his fellow male penguins on a pilgrimage to their birthplace where they will start families of their own.

As penguins go, Steve’s an attractive, somewhat neurotic, fellow who’d be too-cute-for-words, were it not for the fact that he is rarely at a loss for them. His inner thoughts, as voiced by Ed Helms, run through a gamut of un-penguin-like concerns, like how to court a female without so much as a decent icebreaker and whether he should consider working out. 

Younger children are likely to respond to Steve’s identifiable human-qualities while older audiences might find Steve’s coy observations an unnecessary distraction from the film’s dynamic footage. Still, it’s hard to be entirely dismissive of the film’s humour. Helm’s timed delivery can induce an unexpected guffaw out of even the most cynical viewer.

Despite its overt family-friendly premise, directors Alastair Fothergill (Blue Planet) and Jeff Wilson (Our Planet) toss in a few dramatic, edge-of-the-seat moments that run Steve and his family through a prerequisite checklist of life-threatening challenges which seem to be true to all wildlife films. 

More intense moments feature a pod of killer whales, a flock of ravenous birds and a particularly frightening sequence with a band of ruthless leopard seals. 

The result is that Penguins oscillates between being an impressive documentary, where facts are wordlessly conveyed through real-life footage, and being a fabricated bit of fluff where adorable anthropomorphized creatures go about a series of misadventures. 

It’s hard not to imagine what the film would be like without Steve’s adorable self-talk, ie., a film that doesn’t rely on taking the natural out of nature.  After all, isn’t it true that sometimes a penguin is just a penguin?  

Penguins. Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson. Starring Ed Helms (voice). Opens wide, Wednesday, April 16.