“Penguins” Is Soulless

Penguins (Alastair Fothergill/Jeff Wilson, 2019)

Disneynature, a production arm within the larger Disney Studios, produces nature documentaries with an eye – according to its mission statement – to bringing the “world’s top nature filmmakers together to share a wide variety of wildlife stories on the big screen in order to engage, inspire, and educate theatrical audiences everywhere.” With each release, the company makes a donation to global conservation efforts, the size of that charitable contribution based on an individual movie’s first-week box-office sales. This is a worthy action, for sure, so I hesitate to write my review of the latest and not-so-greatest, but the fact remains that Penguins is a mostly soulless concoction that purports to glorify the lives of its subjects even as it relentlessly trivializes them.

The story is similar to that already chronicled in the far superior 2005 Oscar-winning March of the Penguins, though this time our focus is on the smaller Adélie penguins of Antarctica, rather than their larger cousins, the Emperor. We follow the mating and breeding cycle of the herd, and subsequent annual departure from the continent’s shores, all the while watching as our protagonists struggle to survive the harsh conditions of that distant southern land. Courtesy of a (mostly insufferable) voiceover spoken by actor Ed Helms (Cedar Rapids), the film presents “Steve,” a male of the species, as its central character, adding comic sound effects and dramatically manipulative pop music to ostensibly endear him to audiences. I prefer my wildlife au naturel, thank you very much.

The cinematography is beautiful, as one would hope, but given the superficiality of the commentary, that magnificence is constantly undercut by the film’s overall aesthetic. It’s effectively a live-action cartoon, begging the question: why bother? Better to not disturb these creatures at all than to do so for such lightweight fare. If this is Disney’s approach to saving the world, I would feel better about the effort if all profits went towards research and preservation, rather than what will surely be but a small percentage of receipts. Bring on the merchandising, since we’re all just pawns and products in the larger corporate scheme.

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