As summer arrives in Antarctica, a two foot tall, fifteen pound, five year-old Adélie penguin named Steve makes the 100 mile journey to where he was hatched to make his first attempt at finding a lifelong mate. He’ll have to fight hundreds of thousands of others who have done all this before to land prime real estate and build a nest with rocks ripe for stealing by competitors. Perseverance and a distinctive voice win over Adeline but the honeymoon is short for “Penguins.”
The first DisneyNature release reviewed on Reeling was its second, “Oceans,” in 2007. Despite some gorgeous photography, it was underwhelming, its information scant, its conclusions simplistic. Since then, overt narrative anthropomorphization, the series’ modus operandi, has sacrificed in depth exploration for kids’ entertainment. Things were looking up in recent years, “Monkey Kingdom” telling a varied enough story to rise above the DisneyNature template, “Born in China,” from Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan, abandoning anthropomorphization entirely for a franchise pinnacle. With “Penguins,” though, they’ve come back to earth with a resounding thud.
We never do learn, for example, that the Adélies’ mating call indicates how fat it is, a determining factor for females who share nest sitting duties with their mates. Instead directors Alastair Fothergill (“Chimpanzee”) and Jeff Wilson (“Monkey Kingdom”) set the mating ritual to R.E.O Speedwagon’s ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling.’ Narrator Ed Helms both sets the stage for the action and provides our hero’s inner thoughts. The Adélies are quite clumsy on land, waddling, tripping and tumbling, which sets Steve up as a charming underdog.
Steve gets lost among Emperor penguins, their young beating up on the smaller species’ adult. Once Adeline lays their two eggs, predators like the polar skua seabirds must be fought off (the birds continue to prey upon the hatchlings). Once the chicks arrive, hundred mile treks must be made to gorge on fish to regurgitate into their bellies, journeys shared by both parents confronting orcas to feed their young. The chicks need to grow four times their initial size in order to make the journey back into the open seas, a rite made treacherous by hunting leopard seals. Yet even at a scant 76 minutes, this story feels drawn out, a half hour special padded with repetitive imagery and cutesy commentary.
Given the footage on land, underwater and from the air, patiently captured by a team of nine principal photographers over 900 ‘camera days’ in conditions featuring katabatic winds that reach up to 150 mph and temperatures plunging to 40 below zero, a making of documentary would have been more fascinating than what DisneyNature is releasing (as usual, you can see the filmmakers at work over the closing credits). Harry Gregson-Williams’ (“The Meg”) score features a whistling choir for a jaunty take on these clumsy, waddling creatures, but it also goes bigger and more orchestral for more awe-inspiring moments. This franchise’s heart is in the right place, a percentage of first week ticket sales benefiting each film’s subject, but “Born in China” excepted, it’s like DisneyNature has hired Vermeer to illustrate books for three year-olds.
Robin did not see this film.
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