Disneynature’s Penguins is a coming-of-age story following Steve (voiced by The Office’s Ed Helms), a five-year-old Adélie penguin who’s finally ready to find a mate and start a family. Unfortunately, Steve is always a few steps behind the other penguins, and while playing catch up, finds himself in odd and often curious predicaments he has to figure a way out of. As the film begins, Steve is already running late and must rush to catch up with the other penguins who are well on their way to making the annual 100-mile trek to an nest-friendly area in Antarctica with dry land. Here, male penguins will collect rocks to build nests where their female mate will lay their eggs.
Being the youngest and the last to arrive, Steve’s options for dry land are limited as most of the good spots are already taken and fought over by two and sometimes three or more other penguins. What’s a poor Adélie penguin to do?
As he meanders through the wide open landscape, Steve manages to find a spot, but quickly realizes that all the best rocks have already been taken by the older penguins. To make matters worse, the rocks that he does manage to scrounge up get stolen by some of the other penguins. By the time Steve notices what’s going on, it’s nearly too late, and the females are starting to arrive. As Adélie penguins mate for life, the older male penguins start their calling to attract their female mate, but Steve must call out in the hopes of attracting a new mate.
Penguins does a fantastic job showing the difficult quest these penguins endure each year just to survive the harsh climate of the Antarctic while attempting to raise a young family. It’s also quite brutal: even our (i.e. humans) harshest winters look like a breezy summer day down there, and that’s not factoring in the killer whales, leopard seals, and even hungry birds of prey who are often less than a stone’s throw away from killing his young.
Once the eggs are laid, Steve must then travel up to 100 miles to the nearest “beach” in order to feed on fish before returning to help keep the eggs warm while his mate then makes the same journey. After hatching the baby penguins are born completely defenseless, with only a thin dense gray fur coats for protection. The new parents take turns going for food and coming back to feed their young, and they’ve got their work cut out for them. To survive the upcoming winter, the young penguins must grow at least four times their size; any less and they will likely succumb to the sub-zero temperatures.
As the baby chicks grow older, their parents spend more and more time away, until they’re finally old enough to shed their baby fur-like feathers and reveal the black and white coat familiar to us humans. Staying alive was only half the challenge for these baby penguins, as the real test comes when fall starts to set in and they must follow their parents back out to sea, where they will remain for the duration of the winter. If they are successful in making the hundred mile journey without getting eaten by the land predators, then they must follow their parents across the quickly freezing bay and into open water.
Between the small islands of ice and snow that shift in the bay, however, are killer whales and seals who eagerly await for these noisy bawking baby penguins to prey upon. If caught, their only chance for survival is to play dead in the hopes that the predator will lose interest and release them.
This unforgiving terrain is shown to us through the eyes (and voice) of Steve, leaving the audience completely reliant on him to not only tell the story, but explain what is going on and why certain actions are important to the penguins. Written by David Fowler, who also wrote Disneynature’s Growing Up Wild, Penguins is mostly humorous and respectful of its subject matter. There are, however, a few instances where things felt forced and cheesy, like when Steve wonders if he’s attractive enough for his new mate or if he needs to start working out. That is a very human notion, and even so, Steve had just literally traveled on foot and belly for over a 100 miles and then spent a month collecting stones for a nest. He may not be the most experienced penguin, but it’s safe to say that he’s more than fit.
I can’t say enough good things about the stunning cinematography, which was truly breathtaking and captured the wilds of Antarctica so perfectly it felt like I was transported there right from my very seat. No strangers to wildlife documentary storytelling, directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson (Our Planet and Frozen Planet) chose the perfect shots to tell Steve’s story from the hours of footage they collected.
Being a documentary (of sorts), Penguins also opens many eyes to the fact of just how active penguins are in the wild and how limited they are in captivity. Anyone who’s been to a zoo knows just how small those penguin enclosures are. So the idea of penguins going from traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles a year to being stuck in a room no bigger than most studio apartments is just awful and probably wreaks havoc on their health and social well being.
We’ve seen a lot of documentary efforts focusing on dolphins and whales living (often not well) in captivity over the last few years, and many have helped change minds and attitudes over environments we once thought of as “fun” and harmless. But perhaps with documentaries like this, humans will see that all wild animal deserves a life of freedom, and not just those we choose to free due to social pressures.
Despite its occasional lapses into anthropomorphic sentimentality, Disneynature’s Penguins is an entertaining, light-hearted story of birth and survival in one of nature’s harshest climates. There’s plenty of poignant and tense moments throughout its beautifully captured landscapes, and Steve (i.e. Helms) makes a lovable guide as we follow his instinctual quest to be a good first time mate and father, despite his penchant for tardiness and aloofness, as he treks across wintery Antarctica. Instead of taking the kids to the zoo and supporting stress-inducing captivity, take them to the theater this summer and show them how Adélie penguins live in their own world, instead of how we force them to live in ours.