FILM REVIEW – PENGUINS. With Ed Helms. Written by David Fowler. Directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jeff Wilson. Rated G. 76 minutes.
For the last decade, Disneynature – a unit of Walt Disney Studios – has been releasing family-friendly documentaries, often in April around Earth Day. These have included such movies as “African Cats” (2011), “Bears” (2014), and “Monkey Kingdom” (2015).
The current films have an ancestry the studio might prefer you ignore. Back in the 1950s, Disney produced a series of nature films under the banner of “True-Life Adventures,” which proved successful and won several Oscars. The dark secret was that many of these so-called “true” stories were, in fact, staged for the cameras, with the most notorious example being 1958’s “White Wilderness”, in which lemmings were brought to an area of Canada that was not their habitat, and pushed (and thrown!) to their deaths to depict a dramatic – and scientifically inaccurate – account of “mass suicide.”
The new films seem to be done far more respectfully, and without creating dangerous situations for the camera. The Jane Goodall Institute, for example, was involved in the 2012 production of “Chimpanzee.” Yet there’s still a good deal of anthropomorphizing going on, so audiences will be engaged by characters involved in a story, rather than wildlife going by instinct.
Case in point is this year’s entry, PENGUINS. Narrator Ed Helms introduces us to “Steve,” an Adélie penguin in Antartica. It’s spring and like the other males of his species, he’s building a nest out of stones and trying to attract a mate. He’s presented as an underdog – or “underpenguin” – who has to deal with other males “stealing” his stones among other things. Eventually, he mates with “Adeline,” with the soundtrack providing us with a love song as if this were Steve’s big date for the prom.
The film provides some facts of the penguin life cycle, mixed in with the pretense that “Steve” is also experiencing human emotions. This may make it easier to hold the interest of young viewers, but there’s also a bit of dishonesty or, at least, misdirection. The two adult penguins reproduce and have to feed their hatchlings until they can fend for themselves. This involves going out and catching fish and then regurgitating it for the young ones. Children will no doubt enjoy being grossed out by this.
Later there is a sequence in which a carnivorous leopard seal attempts to eat one of the offspring. This is presented as a bad thing since it threatens part of “Steve’s” family. Why is it okay for penguins to eat fish but not for seals to eat penguins? A serious documentary might make a point about the food chain. For the Disneynature films, it’s not about survival of the fittest, but the survival of the cutest.
“Penguins” gives us a look at birds in their native habitat, and makes it entertaining for the whole family. Give credit to the filmmakers who went out and got the footage. Nonetheless, the resulting film is no more than a picture book introduction to nature.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.