People made a big deal about Marvel Studio’s 10-year anniversary recently, but another Disney imprint is also celebrating a decade of quality filmmaking this year. Granted, the stories that comprise the Disneynature universe aren’t interconnected, but they consistently have some nifty Making Of footage during the end credits. Not your standard-issue nature docs, the Disneynature films take their cue from the parent company’s animation branch, taking incredibly shot footage of animals in their natural environments and mapping out a narrative for the main characters. The animals even get dialogue, courtesy of whoever the narrator of the film might be. In the case of the latest work, Penguins, the narrator and voice of lead Adélie penguin Steve is Ed Helms, who portrays the creature as always late to something, including the migration of males during the Antarctic spring to build a nest and find a mate (usually for life) to start his family.
From directors Alastair Fothergill (Chimpanzee, Bears, Monkey Kingdom) and Jeff Wilson (marking his feature film debut) and telling a similar story to the groundbreaking March of the Penguins (which profiled emperor penguins), the movie tracks Steve’s desperate journey, his quest for a mate, his daily struggle to find food for his newborn chicks, surviving weather extremes, and avoiding a barrage of threats from other animals in the region—from killer whales to leopard seals, who thankfully might get you in their mouth, but if you play dead, it’s likely they’ll lose interest and let you go.
The storytelling device used in most Disneynature films is tired and feels like pandering to younger audiences, but the footage is indispensable—captured by a team that is clearly fearless and remarkably careful about documenting these breathtaking images that profile the struggle of these animals on a daily basis at various points in the year. The ongoing problems of global warming are on display as well, but there’s no preaching about what we’re seeing (I wish there had been, to be honest). In other words, the film is safe for younger viewers (unlike March, it doesn’t really even deal with the realities of death), and if using cute animals is what it takes to get kids interested in the environment and natural world around us, that’s fine by me. I still get a rush out of watching these films on the big screen (and Penguins is the first Disneynature film to also be released in IMAX). They are clearly the works of storytelling craftspeople who care as much about capturing a shot as they do making their subjects relatable by giving them personalities.
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