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‘Penguins’ Review: A Nature Documentary Veers Into Fairy Tale

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

In “Penguins,” the beautiful but frustratingly shallow Disneynature documentary, Ed Helms provides the internal monologue for a 5-year-old Adélie penguin referred to as Steve, who is about to embark on his first mating season. Helms explains that if Steve hopes to thrive in the Antarctic spring and summer, he must find a mate, procreate and provide food to keep his new family alive.

The camera follows Steve as he waddles through extraordinary vistas filled with cliffs backlit by a sun that never sets and ice floes rocked by the tempestuous waves of the Southern Ocean. These are precious glimpses of a vibrant ecosystem, one under severe threat because of ocean warming. But the pressure to build a family-friendly narrative out of these images diminishes the observational accomplishments of the directors, Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson. As a result, nature’s complexities are reduced here to dull clichés.

The character invented for Steve is as bumbling and cute as his wobbly walk. But the choice to create an inner monologue for him feels like an infantilizing suggestion that animals must be wholly anthropomorphized to be compelling subjects. And although Helms alternates between perspectives — frequently leaving Steve’s head to offer third-person descriptions of the environment — “Penguins” only grants internal life to one creature out of thousands, concealing the symbiotic relationships that sustain life in such a harsh climate. Even Steve’s mate is silent.

As a fairy tale with a penguin for the hero, “Penguins” is proficient. But as a documentary with access to one of the world’s most remote locations, this fantasy feels insufficient and even distorting, particularly when common threats that connect every species — like climate change — are never mentioned.


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