The creators of “Penguins,” this year’s DisneyNature Earth Day gift to moviegoers, walk a fine line between cute and “cutesie.”
The producers hired comic actor Ed Helms (“The Office,””The Hangover”) to narrate. They anthropomorphize the Adélie penguins the film is about, naming one “Steve” and his mate Adeline.
Disney has been doing this since getting into the nature documentary business in the 1940s. Who remembers “Perri the Squirrel?” Anyone?
So DisneyNature’s “Penguins” is considerably more kid-friendly than 2005’s “March of the Penguins,” a classic of the genre, and a French-made blockbuster that earned $127 million at the box office while showing the world the epic struggle of emperor penguins to survive, make and hold their own in the harshest climate on Earth — the frozen wasteland of Antarctica.
We meet Steve as he returns to the continent for the first time as an adult, a guy in the make. For a mate.
“Is she looking at me? She’s looking at ME…Annnnnd she’s walking away.”
Helms not only narrates, he takes on Steve’s interior voice as he clumsily tries to attract a female, courts and gets down to the business Adélie penguins are famous for — collecting pebbles to build a nest.
Helms gives Steve an underdog’s charm, even if it’s impossible to make the little 15 pound birds more adorable than nature already made them.
But he’s perfectly sober-voiced in describing the harsh living conditions, the steep odds and the major threats facing these small penguins, clustered in colonies during the chilly Antarctic summer.
You remember some of them from “March of the Penguins” — terrible cold, blizzards, the predatory skuas (birds) who eat their eggs and kill their young, Orcas and leopard seals.
Co-directors Alastair Fothergill (“Planet Earth,” “Chimpanzee,” “Bears”) and Jeff Wilson may play up the cute, here. But they don’t sugar coat this world, either. Having the narrator call Orcas “Killer Whales” is apt.
And if they’ve done their jobs right, their movie will show the awful consequences of leopard seal attacks. You could have heard a pin drop during those scenes — in a theater crowded with children — when the seals, working in tandem, hunt the little birds through the ice floes. Life is scary, and life in the wild doesn’t favor the cute and cuddly — an important bit of growing up movies like this should deliver.
In the years since “March of the Penguins,” cameras have gotten smaller, drones have become handy filmmaking tools and “Penguins” benefits from these advances — capturing the scale of the size of the colony and bringing us the most magnificent under-ice/underwater photography the cinema has ever seen.
“Penguins” isn’t just adorable. It is, in many moments, beautiful.
The “cute” gets to be a bit much, with “romantic” moments underscored with REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight this Feeling Any More” and Steve’s end-of-summer trip back into the sea with Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again On My Own.”
It won’t supplant “March of the Penguins.” But DisneyNature has scored another kid-friendly natural world documentary about wild creatures we all connect with and that today’s kids will grow up wanting to protect from climate change and the other man-made threats facing them.
MPAA Rating: G, some animals-in-peril moments
Cast: The voice of Ed Helms
Running time: 1:16