Bird is the Word

Plucky Penguins win your heart in Disneynature docudrama 

Disneynature "Penguins"

Narrated by Ed Helms
Directed by Alastair Fothergill & Jeff Wilson

Raising a family is a full-time job; being a couple is a commitment; parenting can be a very challenging gig.

Just imagine doing it in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, surrounded by predators who want to eat you—and your kids—and having to restart the process every year.

That’s the situation for Steve, the little Adélie penguin in Disneynature’s Penguins. Adélie penguins, named for the wife of 19th century French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville, live along the coastline of Antarctica, their only natural habitat.

We meet Steve in the opening scene, waddling along over snow and ice on his annual migratory trek to his birthing grounds. We learn that this is Steve’s first solo trek, without his parents, and that he—along with millions of other male penguins—is on a single-minded mission to mate.

The guys will build nests out of rocks and pebbles, find gals and start families.

Disneynature, a documentary branch of the Disney empire, has been making theatrical nature and “wildlife” films for 10 years. Maybe you’ve seen Earth, Oceans, African Cats, Chimpanzee, Bears, Monkey Kingdom or Born in China. Both educational and inspiring, they’re the latest addition to the Oscar-winning Disney lineage of true-life animal movies, which extends back to the 1940s.

Disneynature "Penguins"

Penguins is a nature documentary, yes, but the filmmakers give it a snappy, immensely entertaining, with-it spin, from classic rock music and clever editing to the narration of Ed Helms, who also provides the voice (and thoughts) of Steve. The actor from TV’s The Office and the Hangover movies brings just the right undeterred-underdog vibe to the part, channeling the plucky, pint-size penguin’s unflagging determination and drive to succeed—and survive.

As movies go, it clocks in at a crisp 76 minutes; some other flicks would only be warming up by the time this one’s wrapping up. But it’s a poignant tale, filled with tension, comedy, fun, suspense and romance. I particularly loved the part where Steve finally finds a mate, Acdeline, and they swoon and coo together—to the fulsome swells of REO Speedwagon’s “an’t Fight This Feeling Anymore.”

There are other tunes by the Average White Band, Patti LaBelle and Whitesnake. Steve may be living on the ice-cold end of the Earth, but his playlist is blastin’ pretty hot.

Disneynature "Penguins"Soon Adeline has two eggs, then two baby chicks, and Steve is a first-time father. He’s got to be on the lookout for danger just about everywhere—from the air, where predatory birds called skuas are always on the hunt for the smallest, weakest and youngest chicks; and in the water, where leopard seals and killer whales would love to snarf up some penguin appetizers.

You learn a lot in Penguins. About how Adélie penguin “couples” can pick each other out from hundreds of thousands of other penguin pairs—even after they separate at the end of the mating season, to spend the winter swimming free in the wide, open water. How they build nests, and how pebbles and rocks are real commodities. About the hurricane-force katabatic winds that can sweep across the ice, burying the penguins in snow. About the millions of forms of life that return to the Southern Ocean when it comes alive anew every year in the summer thaw.

The photography is spectacular, and some insets during the end credits hint at the extraordinary filmmaking efforts involved—a combination of underwater, aerial and “conventional” techniques, but all done in the most inaccessible place in the world, five million square miles of ice where it’s full sunlight for six months, then full darkness, and where temperatures can drop to 122 below zero. I’d gladly watch a full movie about the making of this movie.

Disneynature "Penguins"

Penguins is timed to coincide with Earth Day, Monday, April, 22, and a portion of every ticket purchased during opening week will go toward the Wildlife Conservation Network to help protect penguins across the southern hemisphere—like Steve and Adeline.

As the movie tells us, Steve’s new role as a father is one he’s been “preparing for his entire life.” Penguins reminds us of the grand cycle of life not just for Steve, but for nature in general—the mystery of animal instincts, the majesty of their domains and their marvelous, miraculous adaptability.

And as Earth Day approaches, it reminds of the awesomeness of our precious planet, teeming with life, spinning with seasonal spawn and carrying on the constant business of renewal, reawakening and rebuilding.

“If all goes well,” Steve says, he and Adeline “will see each other again next spring.” Hey Steve, we’re all pulling for you two!

In theaters April 17, 2019

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