Disneynature’s Penguins takes nature documentaries to Antarctica – and in a new direction entirely. Unlike its predecessors, which weave together several storylines to create a broad depiction of life in a given ecosystem, Penguins singularly follows… Steve.
Steve is just like you and me, except for the fact that he’s a 5-year-old Adélie penguin who is coming of age in dangerous 150 miles-per-hour winds and sub-zero wind chills. Disneynature and BBC documentary veterans Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson unite to craft an endearing story featuring an eerily relatable protagonist. For an hour and sixteen minutes, Steve is running frantically to get somewhere in time. He needs to make his own nest, deal with bullies in the colony, find a mate, raise kids, and – most importantly – not die. He’s always the last to the party, constantly lost and left behind, and learning to be a father. And you know what – he’s trying his best.
Ed Helms (“The Office”) brings his familiar charm and enthusiasm to a nuanced narration, often voicing Steve’s perceived thoughts and feelings in addition to providing contextual information. The voiceover – written by Disneynature mainstay David Fowler – is never afraid to go for the laugh, exaggerating Steve’s personality with one-liners and easy doses of arctic observational comedy that permeate his stream of consciousness. “Go eat your own kids,” Steve yells as an avian predator almost makes off with one of his young offspring.
Music selections from the likes of REO Speedwagon and Whitesnake underscore refreshingly fast-paced scenes in which Steve struggles to keep up with the crowd. The message is simple: “like a drifter, [Steve] was born to walk alone.” If Steve and his family of three were any more human, they’d be anthropomorphic – a fine line Disney’s nature division likes to walk. Quite often, substance is swapped for comedy; relatability morphs into artificiality. Penguins gradually shift gears from nature doc to witty romcom to classic teen bildungsroman. Steve comes neatly packaged like a true Disney protagonist, a literal spirit animal for those struggling to keep up with societal expectations.
Penguins, advertised as a coming-of-age saga, is structured like any John Hughes flick. We first meet Steve slipping and sliding along a 100-mile journey to set up camp ahead of the mating season. Millions of male penguins take part in this annual migration, and only one can get there last. That’s Steve, of course. He’s new to this; a child still growing into his adult responsibilities. There are challenges at every turn and waddle; other penguins, killer whales, feisty birds, ambushing seals, and the weather itself are all threats to Steve and his family’s survival. Ironically, it is Steve’s inexperience that becomes his biggest hindrance. Amid the most frigid temps of the season, Steve finds himself lost in the tundra, accidentally wandering away from his mate, Adeline, and two newly-born babies who are depending on him. But like any good hero, he’s given an opportunity to complete his arc, when he abandons his family again – this time out of necessity – to provide for his food-deprived children during a terrible storm. Steve’s character development, however contrived it may seem at times, is an entertaining substitute for the monotonous rattling-off of facts that makes many a documentary fall on deaf ears. His heroic journey of self-discovery, albeit imposed by nature itself, comes full circle all the way to its bittersweet, Casablanca-esque conclusion.
The adventure is anchored by crystal clear cutaways in a definition that transforms the movie screen into a vast window that overlooks beautiful landscapes and colorful sunsets. Documentary purists will enjoy the film’s stunning cinematography and time-lapse sequences, which include sweeping shots of the icy terrain and glimpses of a brief, beautiful summer, which are as descriptive as the narration itself. When we’re not up, close, and personal with Steve, we are simply observing the natural wonders of the regions – and perhaps marveling at camerawork so purposeful and well-executed that you need to stop and convince yourself that the cast of penguins is neither paid actors nor computer-generated imagery. The story falls together seamlessly in a writing and editing feat of epic proportions. The tone and pace are controlled handily; the rich orchestral score quickly pivots to Steve’s lively theme as life-and-death drama is balanced with laughable penguin problems. Suspense is prescribed in doses as a G-rated documentary emerges from the grasp of some hungry leopard seals.
You’d have to read far between the lines to pick up the Earth Day message of conservation and preservation. Disneynature won’t hit you over the head with environmentally-friendly goodwill; instead, they’ll let Steve do the talking.
The new message is simple and Disney-like. Penguins – they’re just like us.
“I wish I could fly!” he bemoans. Me too, Steve. Me too.
Disneynature’s Penguins opens April 17, just in time for Earth Day 2019. A portion of the proceeds from opening week ticket sales will go to support penguin conservation.