A new Disneynature documentary from directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson — they also collaborated on the studio’s bless-the-beasts-and children docs Monkey Kingdom and Chimpanzee — Penguins puts the focus on Steve, an Adélie penguin coming of age during a freezing Antarctic spring. Yup, there is a cute overload; penguins are as adorable as hell. Steve’s 100-mile journey from his natural ocean habitat to the breeding grounds on shore does not skimp on trials and travails, which include nest building and making a life for himself. It’s no easy ride. Two feet tall and weighing in at 15 pounds, Steve is hardly a superhero. In fact, he’s a natural target for leopard seals, killer whales and the bigger, bullying Emperor penquins. No matter. The little guy can fight with the best of them.
Steve’s voice comes courtesy of Ed Helms, who strikes just the right notes of silliness and growing maturity as the waddling bird finds a girl — the lovely Adeline — and falls in love to REO Speedwagon’s power ballad “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” There are song cues everywhere for these serial monogamists, from Whitesnake to the Average White Band. Fatherhood is next up for our hero, a challenge which includes the care and feeding of chicks. And having Helms vocally take us through the highs and lows is a total treat. It’s too bad that Adeline, clearly unaware of #TimesUp, doesn’t get to speak.
Of course, Penguins could still astonish without the anthropomorphic posturing of The Office alumnus or the constant classic-rock needle-drops. It took 16 cinematographers over three years to capture the stunning images on view. And the effect is jaw-dropping, whether we’re watching the penguins swim and dive with synchronized precision or try to locate the colony’s nesting females now covered in snow. The film doesn’t shy away when nature lowers the boom with harsh weather, predator attacks and the instinct in penguins to steal food and building materials from each other.
Oddly and disappointingly, climate change is never addressed. Yes, the Oscar-winning March of the Penguins covered much of the same ground in 2005. But the Mouse House’s version is funnier, kid friendlier and eager to conform to the questionable premise that, hey, penguins are just like us. No they’re not: They’re flightless birds, and it’s cheating to suggest otherwise. But fantasy elements aside, this Disney movie has the one essential that makes a nature documentary fly: a thrilling sense of wonder.