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'Penguins' review: Latest Disneynature doc is a winner

Disneynature's all-new feature film "Penguins" is a coming-of-age

Disneynature's all-new feature film "Penguins" is a coming-of-age story about an Adélie penguin named Steve.   Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures / Kieran O'Donovan

PLOT The story of Steve, an Adélie penguin, on a quest to find a life partner and start a family.

RATED G

LENGTH 1:16

BOTTOM LINE This latest example of Disneynature’s Earth Day-themed appreciations is actually quite good for its type.

The latest frisky Disneynature film, “Penguins,” creates a character introduced as a 5-year-old Adélie penguin the screenwriter, David Fowler, has named Steve. “Meet Steve,” narrator Ed Helms says. He’s about to mate for life, become a bumbling, comic-relief Antarctica father and do his best to take the audience’s mind off the perpetual danger his family faces from predatory birds, hungry leopard seals, killer Orcas, ferocious, subzero katabatic winds and composer Harry Gregson-Williams’ insistent whistling theme on the soundtrack.

Adélie male penguins attract a mate by various means, among them the quality of their nest made of stones. The missus in Fowler’s scenario, named Adeline, puts up with Steve’s chronic tardiness (I found the early, wait-for-me-guys footage almost unendurable) because “Penguins” may as well be titled “Love That Steve.” He’s the definition of pluck, penguin division.

This latest example of Disneynature’s Earth Day-themed appreciations is actually quite good for its type. Directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson capture some achingly beautiful sunsets, and Adélie penguins never look so noble as when they’re silhouetted in the frame, against a blast of color suffusing the icy horizon.

Using Dragon 6k digital cameras, the directors tricked up what they call a “penguin cam,” able to track alongside Steve on the move, slip-sliding away toward the nest or to the fishing expedition 50 miles away. The penguin cam shots depict Steve from a stomach-height perspective, in gratifyingly long takes. We get a sense of how these birds move, and how many hundreds of thousands of them jostle and scramble for a nest-building space.

Filmed across three years, “Penguins” presumably used a wide variety of Steve and Adeline look-alikes to form composite portraits of the ordinary middle-class Adélie couple we see here. In the spirit of previous Disneynature film voice-over artists John C. Reilly and Tina Fey, Helms contributes a winning inner-monologue voice for Steve, while also delivering the alternately threatening and comforting narration. Are some of the movie’s suspense tactics a little cheap? Of course they are. They always are in these movies. Yet all appears to be safely within the realm of legitimate penguin science and best practices.

For the record: “Penguins” contains no direct references to climate change or any other human factors in Steve’s health and well-being. By now, I hope, the majority of school kids seeing this movie can fill in that part on their own.

Other nature films from Disney

If you’re of a certain age, you might remember seeing some of Disney’s educational nature documentaries in your school classroom. Disneynature is the modern-day version of those, with state-of-the-art photography and celebrity narrators. Here are four examples:

OCEANS (2009) One of the studio’s early efforts is long on imagery but a little short on solid information. Best for very young viewers. Narrated by Pierce Brosnan.

AFRICAN CATS (2011) A compelling and sometimes not-so-pretty story of Sita the cheetah and Layla the lion, who try to raise their offspring in the African savanna. An excitable Samuel L. Jackson narrates.

CHIMPANZEE (2012) This is one of the studio's best productions, a moving tale of Oscar the orphaned Chimp (it’s Disney, what’d you expect?) and the family he manages to make for himself. Tim Allen is a perfect kid-friendly narrator.

BORN IN CHINA (2017) Random Chinese animals — from panda to leopard — provide mostly lighthearted entertainment in this recent release with narration from John Krasinski. No mention of China’s notorious environmental problems, though, which seems like a missed educational opportunity.

RAFER GUZMAN

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