Disneynature’s ‘Penguins’ in Flight with the Flightless

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CHICAGO – It is the tenth anniversary of Disneynature, the arm of Walt Disney Pictures that releases a new nature doc around every Earth Day. This year the naturally visual interest of “Penguins” are their subject, and the film does a nice job on the life cycle journey of these fascinating flightless birds.

Although like every Disneynature film, the need to name the animals in nature (thus applying an outside human trait) is always questionable, but following an Adélie species Penguin that they have dubbed “Steve” works beautifully here. The inherent natural journey of winter-to-spring that these lovely creatures indulge in is well documented, and comic actor Ed Helms does some non-intrusive but entertaining narration to add spice to the educating … he often becomes Steve in voice and manner, yet it’s never over the top. This works best with kids, but adults will probably learn as much.

As narrated by Helms, we experience Steve – a male of the Adélie Penguin species – follow his natural path with his fellow Penguins to the shoreline of Antarctica in Spring. He is there to independently mate, build a hatching nest and find an abundance of food in the finally thawed shoreline waters. The process is of nature itself, and eventually a lady Penguin named Adeline waddles into view.

Steve is Another Dude on the March in Disneynature’s “Penguins”
Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures

The newly minted couple start the ritual dance to learn Steve’s mating call (this is how they can find each other in the lookalike world of Penguins). She is also satisfied with his careful nest building, and faster than you can say birds do it, they are hatching two chicks. In this quick season, it is now up to Steve and Adeline to feed and teach their children well.

The film is cleverly intermarried between “learning nature” and Helm’s entertaining personification of the events. He narrates and performs Steve as a bumbling, almost sitcom-like Dad, but not in an annoying way. It’s refreshing to have a rooting interest in one of the vast number of Penguins living at the shoreline, and to focus on a singular journey that is being played the same way all around that individual bird. It gives some flight to the flightless creatures, in a real (i.e. Non-”Madagascar”) way.

The nature is quite extraordinary, and the film expresses it in a crisp 74 minutes. The Penguins are constantly on the move, whether it’s between seasons (and the long march to the shore) or in the repetitive search for food, especially in gathering for the newly hatched chicks. The realities of the birds being on their own at an early age and being pursued by predators – especially the aggressive Leopard Seal – is prominent but understandable for the target kid audience. It’s even a bit scary.

The Vast and Epic Scenery in Disneynature’s “Penguins”
Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures

And of course with the Walt Disney “Mouse” behind it, no expense is spared in the cinematography, helmed by directors Alastir Fothergill and Jeff Wilson. This is a big screen treat, made more awe-inspiring by the vast whiteness of the landscape, the blue harshness of the cold seas and the colorful skies that define the seasons. The filmmakers are shown in the credit run (enhanced by some funny Ed Helms riffing) and the conditions they filmed in to bring us this “bird’s eye view” takes a bit of hardiness that few could stand.

The cartoon tradition of Penguins, from Chilly Willy to “Happy Feet” to the aforementioned “Madagascar” is a natural, given the characteristics how of this bird-like evolutionary oddity. But to behold them in reality is to give them even more appeal, as the soul of the real animal is not so distant from you and me. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Rico.

Disneynature’s “Penguins” opened in Chicago on April 17th, on IMAX and regular screenings. See local listings for format theaters and show times. Featuring the voice of Ed Helms. Directed by Alastir Fothergill and Jeff Wilson. Rated “R” for scenes of mating… KIDDING … it’s Rated “G”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Editor and Film Writer

© 2019 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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