Disneynature's 'Penguins' Review: Sub-Zero Joy

Narrated by Ed Helms, the latest nature documentary from Disney will especially delight younger viewers.

disneynature penguins

Nonfics is now a newsletter! Please support documentary criticism by subscribing here: nonfics.substack.com.

Disneynature has found a distinct place in the genre of nature documentaries by crafting films that are meant for younger audiences in a very unabashed and positive manner. These films love nature, and they implore the viewer to revel in the endless wonder that the natural world has to offer.

Like Bears and Chimpanzee before it, Disney’s Penguins, which is again co-directed by Alastair Fothergill, this time with Jeff Wilson, is a confident and uplifting joyride for filmgoers of all ages. Transporting the audience into the frigid world of Adélie penguins, the documentary follows the journey of one male through the struggles and triumphs of Antarctic summer, finding a mate, having children, and getting back into the open ocean right before frigid winter temperatures freeze over the ocean’s surface.

Focusing on a single Adélie penguin named “Steve,” Penguins sets itself apart from similar documentaries — yes, comparisons to March of the Penguins are inevitable — by telling a small story and allowing that individual tale to relate itself to the greater experiences of all Adélie penguins. Steve is a quirky little penguin, and his oddness is heightened by the brilliant narration from comedic actor Ed Helms (of The Hangover and The Office fame), written by David Fowler (Born in China).

Helms plays into Steve’s weirdness by breathing vocal life into the hypothetical psyche of a male penguin. Beyond just characterizing Steve, Helms’s narration offers informative exposition and grounding facts that work to help situate the viewer through every twist and turn Penguins makes, and his jovial delivery will keep even the youngest of watchers thoroughly engaged.

Steve’s journey is one of natural cinematic grandeur. Every trial he endeavors upon is steep and seemingly dangerous. When Penguins begins, Steve is already separated from his million other fellow male penguins heading inland. The cards are stacked against him from day one, and Steve eventually shows himself to be two feet tall and 15 pounds worth of pure tenacity, no matter how many times he humorously trips on uneven rock or ice.

Penguins is at its most cinematic and engaging when Steve finds himself in danger, because every moment of the film further relates the viewer to the struggles and daily routine of the bird’s life — I couldn’t help but root for the little fella when he succeeded in his tasks, and I held my breath when he found himself in danger! There is a segment in the film where Steve must traverse ice-pocked water that is occupied by hungry leopard seals. What follows is akin to the lizard versus snake segment of Planet Earth II that went viral two years ago. It is pure cinema, intense and gripping, and Steve is just so easy to root for.

Beyond the central narrative arc of Steve — the little Adélie penguin that could — is the arresting agrestal imagery on display. Nature documentaries are known for their ability to woo the eyes and spark one’s imagination, and if ever there were a film to back up that claim, it would be Penguins. Antarctica is filmed as if it is an otherworldly space, uninhabitable yet familiar. From the over 100 miles-per-hour wind storms to the orange sunsets consuming the horizon-line, everything about the way Penguins looks is compelling in its naturalistic excess.

There are two moments in particular that I am not soon to forget. One is when the camera first follows a group of penguins underwater: we get a stunning glimpse at what it looks like to swim and exist under the ever-dwindling Antarctic ice drifts. The other is a segment that follows Steve as he wanders through a wind storm where vision and light are distorted through violent winds.

I’d be loathed to not broach the topic of climate change. Penguins never directly addresses this topic — the film simply is not about that — but I couldn’t help but wonder what this film would look like if it were made 20 years from now, or 20 years ago. Penguins beautifully captures an environment that may not be around in this form in the near future.

Penguins works so well because it caters to the viewer who loves nature and still has a childlike curiosity about the world, and that wonderment is bolstered through Steve, whose mannerisms and bewilderment at each new step of his life is in tandem with the curiosity of the viewer at the sights they are presented with. But Penguins will definitely play best to a younger audience, as its brand of humor and soundtrack choices lends itself well to children.

This is a simple film that never strays away from its core premise of presenting a coming-of-age tale through the lens of one male Adélie penguin. It is also an arresting documentary with an economic runtime that is sure to please nature-lovers of all ages. And Penguins may even act as a small visual time capsule of a dying environment, so that generations to come may too bear witness to the beauty and omnipresent power of Antarctica, and the elegance of the creatures who inhabit(ed) it.

(Student/Freelance Writer)

Cole Henry is a media theory and philosophy student at Georgia State University, as well as a freelance writer and editor. He is quite interested in every aspect of documentary cinema, and can usually be found reading, writing, running, adding items to his Criterion Collection shopping cart, and eating tacos.