Penguins is a documentary chronicling the adventures of Steve, an Adelie penguin living in Antarctica. Now at age 5, Steve has reached male adulthood and thus must find a mate, build her a nest, help protect the family eggs, and nurture his offspring to survive in the harsh environment just as he did. This lifecycle is narrated by Ed Helms (The Office), who provides color commentary, educational tidbits, and even gives Steve an occasional voice along the way.
What works in Penguins is the breathtaking visuals and the packaging. Cinematographer Rolf Steinmann (Planet Earth II) allows audiences a magnificent glimpse into the natural beauty of Antarctica with majestic shots under perfect lighting conditions. These include both the awe-inspiring glaciers and mountains, as well as getting up close and personal with the wildlife. Directors Alastair Fothergill (Planet Earth) and Jeff Wilson (Frozen Planet) then employ a mix of camera angles to provide audiences a robust experience—wide frames capture millions of penguins waddling in unison across the icy tundra like spilled blank ink running down a sheet of paper; more personal shots lets viewers see the gracefulness of the birds as they dive in and out of the water with impressive finesse.
Being a Disneynature production, Penguins is aimed squarely at families and it succeeds at providing something for all ages in its brisk 75-minute runtime (just short enough to avoid littler viewers from getting antsy). Adults will appreciate the craftwork that went into producing such gorgeous shots as well as the information and knowledge that will likely rub off on kids. Younger viewers (and maybe some older ones) will be unable to resist “aww-ing” at the adorableness of the penguins and giggling at some of the physical humor captured as even penguins slip on ice occasionally. Helms does fine work weaving all of these components together in his talk-over track.
While Penguins is bursting at the seams with cuteness, those who seek a bit more seriousness and realism in their documentaries may enjoy this less. Penguins is really meant for kids to enjoy and learn from, and this results in presenting the material through a particular lens and a “story” that is most certainly not objective. While it wouldn’t be right to say that anything shown in Penguins was necessarily “fabricated,” audiences should recognize that there was a deliberate construction intended to engage and hold the interest of a younger demographic.
Penguins is a lovely way for a family to learn more about the amazing creatures that live in some of the harsh environments in the world, despite being intentionally sugarcoated. The documentary hits its mark and footage captured is incredibly impressive.
Recommended if you enjoyed: March of the Penguins, Milo and Otis, Chimpanzee