“Penguins” brings warm smiles
Directed by: Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson
Written by: David Fowler
Narrated by: Ed Helms
“Penguins” – “She smiled with the warmth of a penguin.” – author Kim Harrison
For many of us - especially those who shovel long driveways between Dec. 26 and the spring equinox - freezing, snowy winters are not a time for celebration, but “Penguins”, set in frosty Antarctica, will bring warm smiles.
Adelie penguins stand about two feet high, sport recognizable tuxedo coloring, and with their awkward walks, soothing personas and indelible social graces, they are as lovable as Chilly Willy himself.
Directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson filmed in Antarctica for four years, and their team braved the harshest of Earth’s conditions. Temperatures sometimes dipped to 70 degrees below Fahrenheit, but it was worth it. In the end, they gleaned and packaged their footage into 76 glorious, nifty, big-screen minutes of Adelie colonies, and their movie centers around one particular penguin: Steve.
Producer Roy Conli - who stopped at the 2019 Phoenix Film Festival to introduce his movie and host a Q&A - said (in a different, online interview), “It’s the story of a young penguin father who learns how to become a dad.”
Comedian Ed Helms steps up to the microphone, narrates Steve’s adventure and also encapsulates our hero’s inner thoughts. Meanwhile, Fothergill, Wilson and the filmmakers offer spectacular aerial, wide and close-up shots of oceans, chucks of floating ice, mountainous terrains, and the penguins themselves, as the Adelie congregations travel and also set up camp for the summer.
With Antarctica’s warmest season shinning on Steve, thousands of his friends and first, second and third cousins, the bright sun and blue skies might convince movie audiences to purchase chunks of icy real estate, build igloos and post rentals on Airbnb. With some IMAX screenings in play, a 60-foot Steve squawking and chatting will most likely widen eyes and swell hearts, and a sweet, courtship moment between Steve and his new found love Adeline while a famous REO Speedwagon tune plays in the background is just one on-screen example.
Although, Fothergill’s and Wilson’s picture is not all lovable images and innocent storytelling. Penguin predators emerge and give moviegoers some pause, but with the film’s breezy tones and everyman, awe-shucks Helms as our escort, experienced viewers should know the narrative arc’s ending before walking into the theatre. “Penguins” is not a carbon copy of National Geographic’s “March of the Penguins” (2005), helmed by Morgan Freeman and his one-of-a-kind gravitas. Freeman’s voice accompanied emperor penguins (who stand about twice as tall as the Adelies), and that film takes a more serious (but also rated-G) approach compared to the freewheeling “Penguins”.
Admittedly, the world does not necessarily need another penguin documentary, but it’s been 14 years since “March”, improved camera technologies can enhance our experience and this appealing picture reaches our better angels. For those who have seen nightmarish docs like “A Plastic Ocean” (2016), one might wonder why massive collections of plastic bottles, bags, caps, and wrappers do not float into Steve’s space and diet, especially since these said items and broken-down microplastics are toxic to ocean communities.
“Penguins” is not that documentary, but there is one scene when Adelie chicks feel overheated, feel stress and profoundly pant while sitting on the shore. A nod to climate change, perhaps?
Hopefully, this beautiful movie and the importance of the Adelies’ habitat will become permanent fixtures in the minds of children and adults everywhere. Kids of all ages at the Phoenix Film Festival screening certainly carried oceans of warm smiles that matched the resting faces of the extraordinary Adelies, so it’s possible.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.