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Chill out with ‘Disneynature: Penguins’

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There are a lot of different ways that movies can captivate us.

This is an important notion to keep in mind as the shadow of Summer Blockbuster Season begins to loom over 2019. For the next few months, bigger might not be better, but it will definitely be ubiquitous.

It’s also a reason to pay attention to a movie like “Disneynature: Penguins.” We’re about to be overwhelmed by a sea of cartoons and CGI explosions for weeks on end – why not sit down and enjoy a quiet, well-made nature film that just happens to be stunningly beautiful and surprisingly funny.

Producer-director Alistair Fothergill has played a huge part in the Disneynature process, having served in one or both of those roles for something like half of the 13 films Disney’s indie nature doc arm has produced over the past decade or so. He’s as visually gifted as any nature documentarian out there, with a willingness to invest the time and effort necessary to create films that tell compelling stories; “Penguins” is another feather in his cap.

The narrative constructed here tells the tale of a young Adélie penguin named Steve. We follow him as he in turn follows his biological imperative and seeks out his ancestral mating grounds for the first time. It’s the story of his search for a mate and what goes into the building of a family. It’s also an exploration of the more frightening aspects of nature and the ongoing battle that survival in a place like the Antarctic can entail.

Despite his late arrival at the mating grounds and some difficulty in constructing a proper next, Steve eventually attracts the attention of a female. The two wind up with eggs and eventually chicks that need to be cared for; they must raise their rapidly-growing children to maturity so that everyone is ready to go their separate ways before the sea ice refreezes and closes their passage back to the open ocean.

But there are dangers everywhere, from the nest to the very outskirts of the ice. Trouble potentially lurks around every corner, leaving Steve to try and do right by his family the best way that he can.

Ed Helms (“Tag”) serves the film’s narrator, breathing light and life into the story put together by screenwriter David Fowler. He lays out the vivid particulars of the environment with a smiling straightforwardness; there’s a sincerity to his voice that permeates every bit of narration and serves as a wonderful companion to the stunningly beautiful footage being captured by the filmmakers.,

But it’s when he makes the subtle shift from narrator to Steve’s inner monologue that Helms really shines. There’s an undeniable awkward charm to Helms that he injects into his rendition of Steve, creating an aw-shucks regular-guy persona for the bird that meshes wonderfully with the story being told. By anthropomorphizing the penguin – naming it and adding a voice to its (very pronounced) physical personality – we as an audience empathize that much more fully. Our affection then serves to amplify our feelings with regards to Steve’s trials and triumphs.

But really, “Penguins” is about, well … the penguins. Not the character that Fothergill, Fowler and Helms have created, but the animals themselves. This project took three years to film – and you can see that dedication in every single shot. The team on this movie immersed themselves in the environment to a staggering degree and it very much pays off. There are a dozen or more shots that border on unbelievability, sharp and inventive and mesmerizing.

The fact that this crew was able to whittle down three years of footage down into a tight, coherent 76-minute film is impressive. The fact that they were able to do that while also ensuring a level of kid-friendly levity is doubly so. Kudos to the editing team responsible for bringing this particular version of the vision to life; once can only imagine the amount of painstaking care that must have gone into crafting this delightful piece of work.

This movie is short and sweet, engaging with its young target audience on levels both entertaining and educational – no easy feat. It is cute and charming in creating its narrative while also capturing unvarnished images of nature’s power. Most of those images are positive, though it does occasionally get a little dark. And that’s good – nature’s beauty doesn’t always spring from sunshine and rainbows.

“Disneynature: Penguins” is a movie that holds its own within the grand tradition of Disney’s nature documentaries. Thanks to the dedication of a talented crew and some strong voice work from Helms, this film should prove enjoyable to audiences of all ages, an innovative and infatuating moviegoing experience.

[4 out of 5]

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