You can’t deny it: nature documentaries are having a pop culture moment. You could say it began with BBC’s epic “Planet Earth” series on Netflix, and gelled into the zeitgeist with the recent release of Netflix’s own original series “Our Planet”; but however it started, nature docs have grown from easy rainy Sunday family viewing to being a major part of the daily popular culture conversation. Unsurprisingly, Disney as usual has their fingers on the pulse of the culture with the timely release of Disneynature’s Penguins.
In Penguins, the viewer is invited to “meet Steve” — a young adult Adelie penguin eking out an existence with his hordes of brethren in Antarctica, embarking on his first nesting season. We follow Steve through the course of several months as he journeys to build a nest, find a life partner, and raise a family, all while outwitting or escaping predators and surviving harsh Antarctic conditions.
It’s gorgeously filmed, with up-close views of cute penguins and their fluffy chicks interspersed with sweeping drone footage of the impressive Antarctic landscape, and incredibly beautiful underwater footage of penguins, leopard seals, and orcas as they swim swiftly past gigantic icebergs and through sea ice channels between the ice floes. It’s a breathtaking visual spectacle, especially on the big screen, that just can’t be replicated in a home viewing situation. (Sorry, Netflix.)
Narration by Ed Helms (“The Office”, The Hangover) lends an upbeat charm and offbeat humour that layers onto the adorable animals and the story of their existence. I mean, let’s face it, penguins are pretty dang cute, right? Adding Helms’ self-deprecating and off-the-cuff type of humour is the perfect accompaniment. There’s more than one laugh-out-loud moment as the penguins engage in their nesting, courtship, and mating rituals and other antics. And with all the threats that abound in the wild, there are plenty of tense moments when you’ll find yourself holding your breath wondering if Steve and his family will survive.
Any discerning adult can tell that Steve’s story is stitched together from footage of many penguins as they get into various scrapes and struggles, but it’s not immediately obvious, and Disney is smart to craft the doc this way. By following one single penguin they make the narrative more dramatic, visceral, and personal. You feel a stake in Steve’s survival and success, a connection that you just don’t make when it’s Morgan Freeman or David Attenborough intoning about penguins in general.
One area where this doc misses out is in the complete lack of any mention of climate change. For an issue that’s front and centre in current conversation, is at the forefront of Netflix’s “Our Planet”, and warrants at least a mention in most other nature documentaries, its omission feels like a yawning abyss in this movie, a chasm that’s made obvious because of its absence.
This gap feels especially apparent because there is so much emphasis placed on the dangers presented to Steve and his young family by the harsh Antarctic elements. The cold, wind, snow, ice, and even the short Antarctic summer each in their own way threaten the survival of Steve and his mate and chicks. What will happen when the sea ice melts sooner? When the summer sun burns hotter? When there are fewer fish, more predators?
Viewers are left asking these questions alone, as the doc leaves Steve at the end of a successful nesting season, presumably to return in a year to do it all over again. The bittersweet ending is offset by a charming and funny set of behind-the-scenes footage and “bloopers” that runs next to the end credits, so it’s worth staying until the end to enjoy every shot of a silly penguin knocking over a camera.
Penguins is an absolutely beautiful, visually stunning nature documentary, presented in a neat narrative structure that will engage you and with a delightful “cast” of penguin “characters” that will leave you wanting more. I’m looking forward to more of what Disneynature chooses to show us of our planet.
Disneynautre’s Penguins waddles into theatres April 17, ahead of Earth Day.