by Alvin G. Burstein
Penguins is literally spectacular. It immerses the viewer in the dramatic panorama of the Antarctica, not a frozen solitude, but the setting of an incredible avian migration and its complex context. If that were not enough to make it worth the price of admission, the
opening credits remind us of contributions by the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund—about eleven million dollars in the last twenty-five years.
The film centers on the yearly return of thousands of Adéli penguins to Antarctica to breed and to nurture their young, spending months there until the fledglings are mature enough to survive at sea. It is probably unsurprising that the inventive genius that gave us Mickey and Minnie Mouse, rodents transmogrified into quasi-humans to entrance their young audience,
would personify a penguin couple, Steve and Adeline and their tribulations as quasi-human parents. The narrative device, which wins the hearts as well as minds of the audience, is magnified by providing Steve with a self-awareness—questionable for the species—that his human voicing shares with the audience. With artful effect, Steve reveals himself as a Chaplinesque comedian bumbling his way through a series of trials and engaging our affections as he, like Charlie, manages improbably to win the heart of his inamorata.
In striking contrast with its elements of humor and romance, the film reminds us that nature has a harsh, unforgiving side, what Tennyson had in mind when he alluded to “nature, red in tooth and claw.” There is heart-stopping suspense as Steve, Adeline and their brood struggle to survive, not only violent and unpredictable weather, but murderous predators: petrels, leopard seals, and killer whales.
Some questions, maybe quibbles, arise about the film. It is presented as a bildungsroman, a coming of age story, centered on Steve’s transition from adolescence to adulthood. The focus on Steve, and, in particular, his gadabout nature, might seem an unintended endorsement of
male privilege. His self-awareness might seem to diminish the important role of instinctive unfolding in animal behavior illustrated by Lorenz and the ducklings that imprinted on him as their “mother.” The curious Adéli rite of collecting pebbles for the nest stands as an example of elaborate behavior that might challenge simplistic forms of evolutionary psychology. Finally, one wonders if the exclusive focus on tenderness in Steve’s and Adeline’s relationship signals a prudish avoidance of documenting their copulation.
Overall, this Disneynature enterprise, Penguins, like travel in Disney World, is a confection. It is tasty, tasteful, delicious and informative, but its artfulness calls for quotation marks around “nature.”