Cinematic Releases: Disneynature's Penguins Brings Us the Adventures of....Steve!

The canon of Disneynature films are charming documentaries that bring the lives of real wild animals to the audience by inventing characters for them to play, giving them names and quirky narratives that anthropomorphize them and endear them further to the humans who are learning about them. Its latest offering, Penguins, is a delightful tale about a young male Adélie penguin, called – of all things – Steve. Ed Helms narrates Steve’s journey through early adulthood with humor and sweetness lacking sentimentality, focusing on his trek to his colony’s nesting grounds, where he meets his lifelog mate, Adelene, and they hatch and raise a pair of chicks through the Antarctic spring and summer.

Like the other films in the Disneynature series, Penguins doesn’t go too deeply into the harshest dangers of living in the wild, to ensure that very young viewers will not be subjected to too much violence – although there are some tense scenes, it is perfectly suitable for family viewing, and Steve is a worthy star for every age. Standing just about the same height as a human toddler, he struts his stuff and does his best to keep his little family happy and safe in the frozen, rocky wasteland the Adélie tribes call home.

For older viewers, the documentary may seem a little silly; Steve’s life story is backdropped with questionable music selections (a subpar cover of REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” underscores a beautiful mating display between Steve and Adelene when they first meet), and Helms’ narration can be cornball and a little too twee at times. But directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson create an insular, and spectacular, world that focuses tightly on the penguins and their daily habits, showcasing the stunning, austere world in which they live. The cinematography – particularly the underwater shots of penguins swimming through crystalline pools and leaping through the ocean – is absolutely breathtaking. The enormity of the Antarctic continent, particularly when it is completely encased in ice and surrounded by frozen waters, is as much a presence in this film as are its avian subjects.

If it suffers from any weakness, it is that the focus may be too tight on the Adélie colony; Steve and Adelene, and their two chicks, are the only creatures we really follow to any great degree. Most Disneynature documentaries will spread their focus out to several species, but here, the only other animals we see are penguin predators, or serve otherwise as barriers to Steve finding his place among the adult population of his group. Giant orcas and leopard seals that patrol the shores and deadly aerial predators abound, but they are brief cameos in this story. Steve is a dapper little fellow, but he has to carry the entire film all on his own – which makes several scenes lagging in compelling narrative structure and pacing. It might have been interesting to see what life is like for some of the other animals that choose to live in the most desolate places on Earth as well, rather than following only one tiny part of a gigantic community of birds.

Ultimately, though, Penguins is appealing and enjoyable, with a charismatic underdog as its star and a lighthearted, informative look at the mating rituals, hatching challenges, and daily struggles of Adélie penguins. While its narrower focus might drag it down in places, it is a gorgeously shot and entertaining little nature film that is appropriate for even very young animal lovers. It is a statement to the wonder of the places humans rarely get to see, and a reminder of the importance of such places left on this planet and all of the living beings that inhabit them.

-Dana Culling

Seeing Penguins during its opening week in the U.S. and Canada (April 17th through 23rd, 2019) will help real Adélie penguins like Steve and Adelene, as well as other penguin species. For each ticket sold during opening week, Disneynature will contribute $.20 to the Wildlife Conservation Network through the Disney Conservation Fund to support penguin conservation, with a minimum guaranteed donation of $100,000.