‘Penguins’ (2019) Review: Far Less Scientific and Much More Story-Based Than DisneyNature’s Previous Efforts

By Steve Pulaski

I’d like to inform you, dear reader, I still haven’t gotten over last year’s injustice from Disney. From the previews preceding Born in China in April 2017 to the first chunk of the following year, we, the American public, were told to expect Dolphins from Disneynature for Earth Day 2018. Previews teased us with beautiful shots of large dolphins galloping in and out of the ocean and performing delightful acrobatics in the water below. I grew suspicious of the film’s projected April release date around late February, as posters at my local theaters began disappearing and various film sites I frequent took it off their respective release calendars. When the faithful April weekend I was expecting Dolphins to arrive finally came, there was no such film in theaters. Low-level film-based Twitter accounts informed me that Disney had cancelled the release of the film and were planning Penguins to be released April 2019. I actually dedicated a brief segment of my radio show, “Sleepless with Steve,” at the time, to discussing the mystery behind the film’s disappearance. Apparently it was released in other countries, namely France, under the title “Blue,” yet to this day hasn’t surfaced in any legitimate form for American audiences. I humbly, if somewhat contemptuously, accept this year’s Disneynature effort, Penguins, as a consolation prize, although the wounds are still raw indeed.

Now that I got that out of my system, onto the present. Penguins is a questionable release for Disneynature, given the fact 14 years ago, we got March of the Penguins, which I was led to believe was the quintessential penguin film. Disneynature also released a sequel to the film, which got a theatrical run in France before debuting on Hulu (of course, with Morgan Freeman reprising his role as the narrator). If Hellboy got a reboot, why not penguins getting one too, I suppose?

After 12 years and 14 films (15 if you count Dolphins), Disneynature has a tried and true formula. Their films feature resplendent, often unprecedented footage of a plethora of animals in their natural habitat. They feature somewhat manufactured storylines about the animals in an anthropomorphic fashion that humanizes their struggles in a way that makes their plights and riches empathetic to humans. Penguins is, by and large, no different, although you could (and I would) argue that the film is far less scientific and much more story-based than the company’s previous efforts — perhaps because all or most that can be said about penguins in a captivating fashion has been iterated in two previous features, but I, again, digress. This is fluffy, acceptable fare as it is, but due to aforementioned shortcomings, it feels among one of the most slight pictures from the admirable company despite boasting the same caliber of captivating visuals.

Penguins explores the life of Adélie penguin, a smaller, scrappier breed than their Emperor counterparts. Comedy actor Ed Helms narrates and provides the internalized thoughts of a penguin named Steve and his quest to find a mate, raise children, and protect them from the bitter environment of Antarctica along with its ceaseless predators. Steve is an underdog in every sense of the word. He’s smaller in stature than other Adélie penguins, and he’s late to the nest-building and mating party compared to other members of his species. The opening sequence shows the scrappy squirt bobbing and wobbling across the barren tundra of the Arctic before finally coming across his flock, constructing a nest of rocks, and erecting courtship with Adeline, who will eventually bear children.

More prevalent in Penguins than, say, Bears or Born in China, is the emphasis on what an unforgiving environment Antarctica is, even for animals suited for extremely cold temperatures. In a humorous bit, Steve builds his nest amongst countless other penguins, one rock at a time, yet every time he turns his back, his “neighbor” waddles over and brings his collection of rocks down by one. If untrustworthy denizens aren’t enough, blizzards that bring winds that reach hurricane-strength pose a problem for penguin eggs that need be kept warm and plump birds known as skuas prove credible hazards to their daily life. It’s hard enough to survive the weather, let alone evade killer whales and feisty birds when all you want to do is raise a family and store enough food in your gullet (which Helms refers to, perhaps appropriately, as “barf”) for your young.

The lack of a larger, takeaway message in Penguins makes it less favorable than its predecessors, but Helms’ narration affirms this is a feature that will likely be most enjoyed by younger audiences. His exuberance is admirable, yet sometimes cloying, as he tries to vocalize Steve’s thoughts in a way that defines cheesy. The cinematography is predictably gorgeous, and Alastair Fothergill yet again establishes himself as a total master at navigating treacherous landscapes in order to get the right shot. At 76 minutes, it’s hard to call this a taxing affair, but the lasting impact feels small not only because we’ve seen penguins and their hostile environments committed to film several times before, but because other films under the Disneynature umbrella have not only exceeded expectations but left a greater mark on the soul.

Grade: B-