The latest frisky Disneynature film, “Penguins,” focuses on a character introduced as a five-year-old Adélie penguin the filmmakers have named Steve.
“Meet Steve,” narrator Ed Helms says. Steve is about to mate for life, become a bumbling, comic-relief Antarctica father and do his best to take the audience’s mind off the perpetual danger his family faces from predatory birds, hungry leopard seals, killer Orcas, ferocious, subzero “katabatic” winds and an insistent whistling theme on the soundtrack.
Adélie male penguins attract a mate by various means, among them the quality of their nest made of stones. The missus in Steve’s scenario, named Adeline, puts up with his chronic tardiness because the movie might as well be titled “Love That Steve.” He’s the definition of pluck, penguin division.
Then again, Steve does help Adeline feed their two chicks — accomplished by regurgitating into their mouths, a process that is discreetly filmed to avoid the “yuk” factor.
Disneynature was launched 10 years ago to release Earth Day-themed appreciations. This one is actually quite good for its type.
Directors Alastair Fothergill (TV’s “The Blue Planet” miniseries) and Jeff Wilson (“Great Bear Stakeout”) capture some achingly beautiful sunsets, and Adélie penguins never look so noble as when they’re silhouetted in the frame, against a blast of color suffusing the icy horizon.
The directors tricked up what they call a “penguin cam” that is able to track alongside Steve on the move, slip-sliding away toward the nest or to a fishing expedition 50 miles away. (The underwater shots reveal a creature as graceful as Esther Williams.)
The penguin cam shots depict Steve from a stomach-height perspective, in gratifyingly long takes. We get a sense of how these birds move, and how many hundreds of thousands of them jostle and scramble for a nest-building space.
Filmed across three years, “Penguins” presumably used a wide variety of Steve and Adeline look-alikes to form composite portraits of the ordinary middle-class Adélie couple we see here.
In the spirit of previous Disneynature film voice-overs, Helms contributes a winning inner-monologue voice for Steve, while also delivering the alternately threatening and comforting narration.
Are some of the movie’s suspense tactics a little cheap? Of course they are. They always are in these movies.
Yet, all appears to be safely within the realm of legitimate penguin science and best practices.
For the record, the script by documentarian David Fowler (who also wrote Disneynature’s 2016 panda bear movie “Born in China”) contains no direct references to climate change or any other human factors in Steve’s health and well-being. But by now, the majority of schoolkids seeing this movie should be able to fill in that part on their own.
★★★ out of 4 stars