It’s impossible to be on the internet for longer than a few minutes without running into a post or video about animals doing cute things. I don’t just mean things they would normally do, like when a cat brings you a small, dead animal as a gift, but more like the ones where they do things we think only humans do. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for those types of videos, and have been known to fall down a YouTube rabbit hole, but what if these videos not only entertained but also educated? Disney thinks they should be able to do both.
Disneynature is known to bring us those wildly informative, mildly entertaining documentaries that follow the lives of animals and their surrounding ecosystems. You know, those movies you either see when you’re at a museum or that you take your children to so that you can feel like a good parent for not taking them to whatever the current animated movie is. Their latest entry, Penguins, is proof positive that you don’t have to compromise fun with learning, especially when the subject is a charismatic Adélie penguin named Steve.
The joy of Penguins, and what will be the draw to the much younger audiences this was made for, is the way the film doesn’t feel like your average documentary. Instead of throwing around scientific jargon and statistics, it blends the facts with a fun narrative. Think March of the Penguins meets Happy Feet. There is an enjoyable story centered around our exploration of the Antarctic and all of the animals that live there. David Fowler, who also wrote Growing Up Wild and Born in China, knows that our empathy is based on how much we can relate to others and creates a narrative around Steve to make his not only likable but an underdog we are rooting for.
In this coming-of-age penguin tale, Fowler shows us his understanding of meme culture by emphasizing some of the more human characteristics of Steve. Although very few of us (hopefully) have had killer whales and leopard seals try to eat us, we can all relate to the awkwardness of adolescence and the rocky journey into adulthood. Penguins offers you a bit of everything: a high school-esque experience, a rocky love story, the comedy of first-time parents, and the adventures of the next generation. You’ll run the full range of emotions, but mostly you’ll just laugh.
Co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson give us an intimate look into the life cycle of these majestic creatures. Whether it is underwater, on the ice, or even wide aerial views, we get the perfect vantage points to witness nature unfold. While the Adélie penguins are the stars, the directors don’t shy away from focusing on featured guests so that we not only understand the ecosystem better but also to get the full scope on just how the different species co-exist. Much like the animals in this documentary, the stunning landscapes, and changing environment feel like characters in this film. Through the film’s nuance, we are meant to marvel at this natural wonders while being reminded how delicate they are, and how we fleeting they are because of man-made climate change.
Everything I’ve talked about up to this point is pretty much secondary when it comes to the true star of the film, Steve the penguin, narrated by the hilarious Ed Helms. On its own, with a typically dry, British voiceover, Penguins would still make for a serviceable documentary. What truly makes it stand out is the sheer amount of personality that Helms gives the entire film with nothing more than his vocal charisma and natural humor. Although the Antarctic is sprawling with a variety of different organisms, the story only comes to life the moment Helms begins telling it.