Flightless waterfowl in formalwear are front and center in Disney’s live-action “Penguins.” The latest entry in the studio’s Disneynature series of documentaries (2012’s “Chimpanzee” and 2015’s “Monkey Kingdom” are among earlier offerings) arrives, as has been the custom with these pictures, just in time for Earth Day.
Shot over a three-year period in the frozen vastness of Antarctica by a doughty crew of cinematographers, “Penguins” blends an environmental message — basically, behold the wonders of nature in the most remote and inhospitable corner of the planet — into a story about an Adélie penguin the filmmakers dubbed Steve. Two feet tall and 15 pounds, Steve, in the tale constructed by directors Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield (both of whom also directed “Monkey Kingdom” and “Chimpanzee”) and Jeff Wilson and screenwriter David Fowler, is a sort of a Dagwood of the penguin world.
A well-meaning goofball, he wanders up to a band of stately Emperor penguins and greets them with a cheery, “Hey fellas! What’s up?” (Ed Helms provides the voice, and also narrates.) That earns Steve a swat. Translation: “Go away boy. You bother us.”
Seeking a nesting location, he’s shooed away by earlier-arriving birds. When he does finally find a spot and begins to painstakingly gather stones for the nest, interlopers snatch some of the rocks away. Hoping to attract a mate, he confesses to being uncertain about “the mating thing.” Finally finding a willing female named Adeline, they tenderly touch flippers, the penguin equivalent of hand-holding.
And yes, that is rather too cute for words.
Cute is king here. Which figures. With their wobbly walk in comical contrast to the tuxedolike formality of their feathered figures, penguins, especially small ones like Adélies, are the waddling definition of cute. Kids love them, and with its family-friendly G rating, “Penguins” is targeted directly at very young audiences.
The anthropomorphizing does get out of hand, and the filmmakers’ penchant for salting the soundtrack with syrupy, upbeat songs (sample lyric, as Steve falls in love: “I can’t fight this feeling anymore”) offers over-obvious underlining to every emotion the audience is supposed to feel.
The hazards of penguin life are the subject of scenes showing their close encounters with predators such as orcas and leopard seals, but ugly outcomes are not shown, in keeping with that G rating.
The true power of “Penguins” lies in the breathtaking visuals of Antarctic scenery and overhead shots of penguins, thousands upon thousands of them, moving across ice fields, black dots on bright white background stretching to the distant horizon. When it steps back from the schmaltz, “Penguins” becomes an impressive piece of work.
★★½ “Penguins,” with the voice of Ed Helms. Directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jeff Wilson and Mark Linfield, from a screenplay by David Fowler. 76 minutes. Rated G. Opens Wednesday, April 17, at multiple theaters.