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For around a decade, Disneynature has strived to educate the viewing public about issues pertaining to the ecology of our planet. In the grand tradition of Disney’s classic works in the field, this special brand has come to represent a sort of gateway for younger kids to access this particular genre of filmmaking, and the studio's latest film Penguins exemplifies that mission in every atom of its being.
With narration and improv comedy provided by actor Ed Helms, Penguins follows Steve, an Adelie penguin who is on his way to the mating grounds in Antarctica for the first time. Following his triumphs, his struggles, and the miracle of penguins starting a family, Steve’s story is one we’ve seen before in different incarnations. Though, it helps that this time out there are some fun laughs, and a couple of '80s tunes to lighten the mood.
That’s part of what makes Penguins such a good film to take your kids to, because while this is a rather familiar subject -- as penguins are popular creatures -- it’s a window into this very subject without much of the heartbreak we’ve seen in other nature documentaries. There are only really two instances of penguins in mortal danger, and in the one scenario that sees a young penguin defeated by nature, we merely see it dragged off camera. So if you want to get your kids into nature documentaries, this may a good way to start them off.
With that in mind, more serious/mature viewers who want a documentary along the lines of a BBC special will need to keep in mind that Penguins really is intended for a younger audience. Helms’ narration does maintain a serious demeanor throughout most of the film, but there are extended stretches where he gives voice to Steve and the rest of his penguin family unit. It’s good-hearted comedic schtick, and definitely enjoyable to listen to, especially if you’re a fan of Ed Helms’ previous work. But you’re not going to get a hard-hitting story about the trials of survival, warts and all, from this film.
It bears repeating that as far as lighthearted-but-informative entertainment goes, Penguins is indeed a good bet for this holiday weekend. While it’s slight in its educational value, it’s an absolutely gorgeous film to look at. Even if you’re a fan of penguin documentaries and have seen it all before, there are still visual marvels to behold in the work that directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson have provided in this film. As vets of both Disneynature and BBC documentaries between their collective resumes, you can see their expertise at work in every frame on display.
The key factor that will probably determine your ticket purchase is whether or not you have younger viewers along for the ride. If you’re afraid of having to explain/shield your children from the gorier side of nature, that’s not a concern with Penguins. You and your young ones can enjoy some beautiful nature photography, and chuckle at the usage of Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” without expecting any potentially disturbing images.
Penguins is undoubtedly an affair as fluffy as the down feathers on a penguin chick, so your and your family's entertainment value may vary with this film. That shouldn’t discourage fans of these flightless birds, as they’re just as endearing in this portrayal as they ever have been. Just go in with the expectation that you’ll still have March of the Penguins to fall back on, should you be hungry for more.