With the Walt Disney Company increasingly thought of as the home of Pixar and Marvel and Star Wars and Frozen and, uh, Fox, its wildlife documentaries have come to feel like afterthoughts. That’s unfortunate because they were for decades an integral part of the company. Its pioneering nature programs of the 1940s and ’50s, released under the “True-Life Adventures” banner, won a multitude of awards while educating and entertaining generations of kids. In today’s age of four-quadrant gigantosaur franchises, of course, such movies seem quaint, even a little dorky. (Especially with the NatGeos and Netflixes of the world staking their claims in the nature genre.) But with its more recent Disney Nature series, the company has leaned into that dorkiness, attempting to mix stunning wildlife photography with simplistic, family-friendly comedy, usually with the help of a celebrity narrator.
The resulting mixture can be uneven. Sometimes it works marvelously, as with 2015’s Tina Fey–narrated Monkey Kingdom, which offers not just humor but surprising doses of tenderness to go with the world-class wildlife footage. But sometimes the juxtaposition of breathtaking imagery and eager-to-please comic banter can be profoundly jarring, as with the new, Ed Helms–narrated Penguins.
Directed by nature-doc legend Alastair Fothergill (who basically does all of these) and Jeff Wilson, the movie follows the mating journeys of Antarctica’s Adélie penguins, focusing on one in particular: a lovable young klutz named Steve, whom we first see waddling along to Patti LaBelle’s “Stir It Up” in the opening scenes. (The music throughout is playfully on the nose and more than a little aggravating: REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” plays over a love scene; Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” roars over the end credits.) Steve has trekked for hundreds of miles, along with thousands of other males, to set up a camp for females to come join them for mating season.
In these Disney Nature films, the narrator not only delivers crucial information about what’s happening onscreen but also voices the animal protagonists’ thoughts and fake dialogue in a jesting, self-aware tone that’s more imaginative speculation than full-on anthropomorphism. In one breath, Helms provides overarching narration about the female penguins’ migration as “the second wave of the great homecoming,” then in the next breath bellows, “Okay, ladies … Open for business!” after Steve painstakingly outfits his new nest with tiny pebbles and waits with anticipation for a mate. It sort of feels as if you’re watching the movie with a professor who can’t stop making dad jokes — adorable in small doses, but at some point you just want him to shut up.
The absolutely unthinkable ordeals these creatures go through in the coming months, as they mate and then stand guard atop their eggs and newborns through some of the harshest conditions on earth, has been told on film before, particularly in the 2005 classic March of the Penguins, still a high point of the “holy shit, penguins are amazing” subgenre. But the images Fothergill and Wilson present are even more awe-inspiring. They capture the majesty of the landscape and the unreal hubbub of penguin activity as well as Steve and his family’s specific doings. The filmmakers have an eye for narrative vignettes: A scene in which a fellow penguin surreptitiously steals rocks from Steve’s nest, prompting our hero to try to figure out what’s happening to them, is shot with a splendid sense of spatial drama; Steve exits the frame at the precise moment when the other bird, lurking in the background, starts to eye his nest. Cameras were reportedly rolling for more than 900 days on this thing, and I believe it. I’m surprised it wasn’t 1,800 days.
It’s all so spectacular, and the overall real-life story of the penguins’ efforts so dramatic, that one might forgive the film its egregious voice-over. Forgive, maybe, but not ignore. And while a certain comic overinsistence is part of these pictures’ design — all the better to keep the attention of young kids — in this particular case, it’s a misstep. Helms’s brand of awkward overzealousness is a national treasure, but it works best when wedded to a specific character, and his goofy mannerisms are as much a part of the overall effect as his delivery. Without that — without seeing Helms himself — the trying-too-hard silliness of the movie’s gags don’t quite land. Nor, for that matter, does the seemingly unrelenting 1980s power-pop soundtrack. What’s worse, the songs often distract from the far more interesting real drama occurring onscreen. Kids may find it engaging, but adults may get more restless than usual. Turn the sound down or play your own music over it, and Penguins may well be a near masterpiece.