The latest frisky Disneynature film, “Penguins,” creates a character introduced as a 5-year-old Adelie penguin the screenwriter, David Fowler, has named Steve. “Meet Steve,” narrator Ed Helms says. He’s about to mate for life, become a bumbling, comic-relief Antarctica father and do his best to take the audience’s mind off the perpetual danger his family faces from predatory birds, hungry leopard seals, killer Orcas, ferocious, subzero “katabatic” winds and composer Harry Gregson-Williams’ insistent whistling theme on the soundtrack.
Like many of us here on planet Earth, Steve feeds his two chicks by regurgitating into their mouths, filmed discreetly by the “Penguins” team. Adelie male penguins attract a mate by various means, among them the quality of their nest made of stones. The missus in Fowler’s scenario, named Adeline, puts up with Steve’s chronic tardiness (I found the early, wait-for-me-guys footage almost unendurable) because “Penguins” may as well be titled “Love That Steve.” He’s the definition of pluck, penguin division.
This latest example of Disneynature’s Earth Day-themed appreciations is actually quite good for its type. Directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson capture some achingly beautiful sunsets, and Adelie penguins never look so noble as when they’re silhouetted in the frame, against a blast of color suffusing the icy horizon.
Using Dragon 6k digital cameras, the directors tricked up what they call a “penguin cam,” able to track alongside Steve on the move, slip-sliding away toward the nest or to the fishing expedition 50 miles away. (The underwater shots, as those who’ve seen an Adelie penguin dive and swim in captivity already know, reveal a creature as graceful as Esther Williams.) The penguin cam shots depict Steve from a stomach-height perspective, in gratifyingly long takes. We get a sense of how these birds move, and how many hundreds of thousands of them jostle and scramble for a nest-building space.
Filmed across three years, “Penguins” presumably used a wide variety of Steve and Adeline lookalikes to form composite portraits of the ordinary middle-class Adelie couple we see here. In the spirit of previous Disneynature film voiceover artists John C. Reilly and Tina Fey, Helms contributes a winning inner-monologue voice for Steve, while also delivering the alternately threatening and comforting narration. Are some of the movie’s suspense tactics a little cheap? Of course they are. They always are in these movies. Yet all appears to be safely within the realm of legitimate penguin science and best practices.
Watching “Penguins” I couldn’t help but speculate on how a Disneynature movie might someday handle a project called “Humans,” to go with “Bears,” “African Cats” and “Monkey Kingdom.” What if you treated a year-in-the-life narrative about, for example, me, as played by some random other humans – Idris Elba, for example, along with my nephew in Albuquerque and our tax preparation guy?
For now let’s table that discussion and stick with the other species. For the record: “Penguins” contains no direct references to climate change or any other human factors in Steve’s health and well-being. By now, I hope, the majority of schoolkids seeing this movie can fill in that part on their own.
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