In terms of pop cultural consciousness, Walt Disney is a dense nexus of multisourced nostalgia. Animation and moviemaking in general have long held center stage—the “recent” acquisitions of Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel and now Fox properties have taken the company’s “touch points” to ridiculous, likely punishingly monopolistic extremes. But alongside singing dwarfs, “Whole New Worlds,” toy empathy propaganda, over-powered space gloves and a galaxy far, far away, let’s not overlook the company’s more grounded fare—the nature documentary. Founded in the same year as the MCU got fully underway, the Disneynature division may lack the CGI-powered spectacle and celebrity-packed publicity blitz of the studio’s bread-and-butter properties, but it also remains among the purest family fare produced by the House of Mouse.
Disneynature’s latest is Penguins, a straightforward study of one mating season of the Adélie penguins—and specifically of one particular penguin named Steve as he finds a mate (spoiler!) and tries to raise two chicks until the time comes to return to the sea. Narrated by Ed Helms and accompanied by some REO Speedwagon, Penguins involves the type of amazing camerawork and patience that is often taken for granted in this post Planet Earth age we live in. (Penguins co-director Alastair Fothergill just happens to be the creator of the influential 2006 BBC series.) Nonetheless, it’s a treat to sit back in a theater and see such images on the big screen, no matter how large that TV in the living room—or how cheap those “concessions” in the fridge—may be. Penguins is also that rare theater experience that is truly G. Even the “nature red in tooth and claw” is mild here as nature documentaries go. (I’ll admit the slow, methodical preying on the penguins by the leopard seals was actually rather hypnotic and low-key terrifying.)
Ultimately, what Penguins lacks in vibranium frisbees or live-action blue genies, it more than makes up for in … well … penguins. Whether it’s because you don’t think you’ll ever have the opportunity to travel to the Antarctic and see these creatures firsthand or you are starting to fear there won’t be anything left to see after another decade or so of climate change, Penguins is a pleasant way to spend some screen time with the family that you won’t regret.
Director: Alastair Fothergill, Jeff Wilson
Writer: David Fowler
Starring: Ed Helms (narration), many penguins, opportunistic skuas, creepily menacing leopard seals
Release Date: April 17, 2019
Michael Burgin is the Movies Editor for Paste. The nature documentaries he remembers growing up always seemed to involve more death.