Film Review: Disneynature’s “Penguins” Barely Waddles Along

Film poster: “Penguins”

Penguins (Alastair Fothergill/Jeff Wilson, 2019) 1½ out of 4 stars.

Who doesn’t love penguins? It’s a question I had on my mind as I watched Disneynature’s latest venture into the animal kingdom that I could guess film distributors had asked countless times before when brainstorming the world’s most marketable creatures. In this family-friendly story that follows the life of a penguin called “Steve” over the course of his first cycle of breeding, it is clear that Disneynature isn’t looking to make a typical nature documentary that bombards the audience with interesting, yet forgettable facts. Disneynature documentaries, in fact, are not about the penguins or bears or butterflies at the center of them; they are about you and me, and I think that is where I lost interest.

While I wanted to overlook this common criticism of Disneynature’s work, the narration that pervades every corner of this film is hard to ignore. What would usually be so interesting to a human audience, that being themselves, becomes a question of ethics if one is to watch with an ounce of humanity. Although narrator Ed Helms is equipped to inject life into a largely childish storyline, it only ever comes close to working the farther it gets from Steve’s humorous inner psyche. While Disney is correct in portraying animals as emotional, feeling beings, they’re intellectually dishonest in depicting their social structures as being reflective of human ones. It is the specifically human gaze that longs to glean human meaning from every small expression or movement. The problem here is that Disney is assuming that in order to make us care about these animals, we have to believe they are us, distracting the viewers’ easily-won empathy for the animal at the center of it with a demeaning and silly narration.

While there may be issues with the way this documentary masquerades as a narrative, it does have its advantages, most notably being that it looks just as good as many narrative films do. Every frame in this film sparks emotion, with the colorful and extreme hues of the Antarctic world displayed at their fullest beauty. While it has the sprawling images one can expect in a nature documentary, the closeup of the penguins play out like a moving painting. It was as though I had never even seen one before, the intimate angles allowing us to see all the small intricacies of their bodies and face, often twisting into strange shapes that could make them seem like children’s plush toys transforming into Mesozoic monsters in a matter of seconds.

“Steve” the Adélie penguin in PENGUINS ©Disneynature

The impressive technical elements extend beyond the look of the film. Through the excessive narration, the proficient sound mixing shines through in a way that it seems to rarely do in most films. And overlooking the 1980’s soundtrack that’s bordering on kitsch, the original score sweetly explores the suspense, the sadness and, most of all, the fun that the penguins feel throughout their constantly evolving journey as a family.

This is the type of movie that is best watched as background noise, the kind you occasionally look up at while you do other things. However, if you’re looking for an easy night out with a movie that isn’t asking much, if anything, from you as a viewer, you’ll probably see what I saw in this: lighthearted images of one of nature’s most objectively cute animals with a thin and saccharine story of parenthood layered into it. I suspect that the type of people interested in seeing this will be happy with exactly that. And besides, who doesn’t love penguins?

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