'DisneyNature Penguins' Review: A Live-Action Disney Movie We Actually Want
A young penguin named Steve struggles to keep up with the rest of the colony, bumbles his way through a yearly migration, and just barely manages to find a romantic partner. It may sound like the premise for a charming animated movie from the Disney Renaissance, but that movie doesn’t exist (you’re probably thinking of Warner Bros’ Happy Feet or MGM’s The Pebble and the Penguin).
Thankfully, that didn’t stop Disney from making a delightful live-action movie about Penguins through its nature documentary film unit. The result, DisneyNature Penguins, is a totally charming 76-minute romp through the Antarctic that’s probably better than any of the “live-action” remakes clogging up Disney’s 2019 schedule.
The best part of Penguins is simply watching these mysterious creatures move through the world. On land, they stumble like drunk toddlers, slipping across the ice or shimmying awkwardly on their stomachs, but in the water, everything changes.
Watching a penguin seamlessly propel itself through water is like watching a submarine move silently through the ocean if you’d never seen a submarine before. As if by magic, they zoom through along without moving a muscle. The only thing more mesmerizing is watching these penguins effortlessly lift themselves out of the water. I could watch penguins jump out of the water for hours. (The best equivalent I can think of is a video of a human jumping into a swimming pool, played in reverse.)
Narrating all this beauty is Ed Helms, who serves as both an omniscient guide describing the migration patterns of the Adélie penguin and an interior monologue for our protagonist penguin, Steve. Believe it or not, this is actually a perfect fit. Disney’s camera team somehow went out and found the Andy Bernard of penguins.
In the very first scene, Steve gets lost during the yearly spring migration and ends up running into a rival species. Hilarity ensues. He arrives at the nesting grounds late and struggles to collect the rocks needed to build a nest of his own. More laughs.
It would be one thing to simply watch a penguin bumble through life against a backdrop of sweeping music and David Attenborough-esque narration. But hearing Helms’ voice fill those moments of silence with funny quips and observations turns this nature documentary into something more: entertainment. (Ed Helms humming “roo-doo-doot-da-doo” while Steve swims absentmindedly through killer whale-infested waters is a perfect cinematic moment.)
There’s a plot here too, and it focuses on Steve’s efforts to find a partner and raise children. Despite arriving at the nesting grounds behind schedule, Steve eventually finds a mate, a female penguin who disappointingly never gets an internal monologue of her own. They perform their mating dance as Disney pipes REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” over the speakers.
The bulk of Penguins focuses on this couple raising two penguin babies against a backdrop of hundreds of other penguins doing the same. Here, the decision to give just one creature internal narration sometimes feels like a limitation, ignoring the larger society at work here in favor of one funny penguin’s story. (Side note: This movie could be calling multiple penguins Steve in different scenes and I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.)
Still, DisneyNature provides a satisfying story with a dramatic ending. As summer turns to fall, the penguin colony must make their way back into the ocean, navigating through a treacherous field of melting ice and carnivorous sea lions. There’s a few moments here that may have you on the edge of your seat. Disney even toys with it’s most predictable trope (killing off the mother) before easing into a happy ending.
Ultimately, Penguins never reaches the heights of modern nature documentaries like Planet Earth, but that’s entirely by design. As the credits roll, behind the scenes footage shows the great lengths these filmmakers went to get their footage. There’s no doubt that DisneyNature’s latest movie could have been a great documentary. Thankfully, it’s just too busy having fun.
DisneyNature Penguins in in theaters now. Disney will make a donation to protect penguins for every ticket sold from April 17-23.