In the wake of Disney’s mammoth efforts to forever change the direct-to-consumer streaming market, it’s all too easy to forget the responsibilities of niche filmmaking when unleashed onto a wide release circuit. The Disneynature label is and hopefully can remain one of those things the company at large can maintain a high risk/low reward scenario on, while the larger franchises continue to excel. 10 years have passed since their first film, the US release of the eye-popping Earth. In that span, seven theatrical releases offered a fascinating, close-up glimpse into various facets of the animal kingdom. Their eighth may have come a bit too late, however, to leave an equal impact. Penguins, Keith Scholey and Alistair Fothergill’s immediate followup to the calmingly poetic Bears, is a rather bizarre crossbreed between the stuffier Attenborough-tinged breed of nature doc and that of a quirky 80s family comedy (think a watered-down Mr. Mom). Combining the two necessarily wouldn’t work of the right people weren’t involved, and the cinematography wasn’t on point with past efforts. But this is Disneynature we’re talking about; against a rather tight, kid-friendly runtime, the visuals are awe-inspiring, only to be surpassed by a fractured story formula.
And it’s a familiar tale told, if one were to boil it down. The film follows a colony of loyal Adelies through a single year of normal life. Normal, except for in the case of our lead character, named Steve. In a group of tough, highly animated characters, he sticks out as a clumsy, awkward, almost nerdy bachelor who strides onto the ice with a loose yet confident swagger. A small-town simpleton entering the big city for the first time, looking for what we all want eventually: to settle down with a mate who’ll love him back, and a pair of feisty kids to carry on his laidback legacy. Of course, in typical nature doc fashion, perseverance is key. Frigid below freezing temperatures, the daily struggle for food, intense katabatic winds, and the persistent threat of leopard seals would be enough to throw anyone off. And at first, that does include Steve, who had certainly bitten off more than he could swallow into his gullet.
Scholey, Fothergill, and co-director Jeff Wilson are once more at the top of their directorial game, getting very close to their subjects, and reaching as far as capturing unexpectedly nuanced facial expressions with great precision. Underwater scenes are filmed with a freeing depth, relaxing if not forcing a barely essential dramatic motif. From a raw visual standpoint, thankfully unsullied by CGI trickery, Penguins is as proficient as its nearest competition or distant filmmaking ancestors.
What serves a dual purpose as its most valuable asset and largest distraction is Steve’s characterization, and the overall narration, uncannily handled by the comedic Ed Helms (The Hangover trilogy). His performance easily segues between essentially voicing what would otherwise be the lead in Disney’s animated knockoff of Happy Feer, and playing the Morgan Freeman-type with nary a waver in tone. The former is almost the film’s fatal flaw, however; I cracked up at spots, yet other times Steve’s “spoken” lines were often cringe-worthy, nearly inappropriate for the moment. It’s a rather mixed bag with Helms, still worth the price of admission but ever with the warning that mileage may vary, whether we find ourselves bemused by his smooth voice or unable to focus on the wildlife; both fall into play, intersecting when inopportune.
Keep the ears open for a lovingly whimsical score and add-on choral whistling at the reliable hands of Harry Gregson-Williams (The MEG), whose work I’d somehow mistaken for that of fellow Brit George Fenton with similar jazz notes. The splendiferous scenery and awkward dramatic tension is assisted well through the score’s wide berth in choice and application, determined to detract but to only make the visuals look better. However, there is a minor caveat tacked on; four 80s songs (headlined by Patti Labelle, Whitesnake and REO Speedwagon) are worked in throughout to iconize Steve’s tale. The merit they aim for, I struggled to take seriously, even convinced they would have made better sense if the film were indeed an animated effort. While they maintain a diverse tone on the shoulders of our lead, their placement may not have been easy to swallow. But still, both parents and kids may have a difficult time not getting into the inherent groove, which is perfectly fine. Nothing more than an unexpected decision that won’t work for everyone.
Penguins, as it stands, will be an effective crowdpleaser, so long as no one expects a staunchly stirring work of cinema ala March of the Penguins. Think of it as March’s little brother, loose-fitting, affectionate, but ready to party. We’re bypassing scientific analysis, but leaving a heartwarming plot that will give viewers plenty to cheer and fawn for; again not so much a typical nature doc and more like a throwback to a classic comedy from a bygone era. While I could feel the drawbacks of its full potential not being reached, I knew it’d still be a winner. Youngsters will approve of the comical moments (led by an endless supply of barf jokes), parents will find a reason to not grow complacent, nature fans may be the toughest to impress. It’s all still “something for mostly everyone”, like its predecessors, aiming to inspire future conservation. If the cuteness on screen can translate to furthered conservation efforts, the label’s efforts, whether they continue theatrically or combined with the resources of now-corporate sib National Geographic for streaming content, may not be so much in vain after all. (C+)
Penguins is in several area theaters this weekend; it’s rated G, but do be mindful of potentially disturbing scenes of carnage in the third act; 76 minutes.