Please, Hollywood, Stop Making Terrible Penguin Documentaries


Adventures of the Penguin King is the latest in a decade-long string of penguin films that now constitute their own minor genre, on par with pirate movies or films about chavs who rob jewel dealers. In the context of the whole history of American cinema, we live in a Golden Age of penguin films that we’ll only appreciate decades hence, when the ice has melted away from the Antarctic land mass, forever changing the ocean’s thermohaline circulation and altering the climate, and penguins are nothing but a cute, sad GIF file in the cortexes of the RoboCops in charge of signing our timesheets.

The film is a klutzy rearrangement of documentary footage into a forced story arc narrated in first person by Tim Allen. Allen, no Morgan Freeman, fully embodies the character of an anthropomorphic, somebody’s-dad-sounding waterfowl whose excited declarations and questions to his peers go forever unanswered. Exploiting our dumb inability to distinguish the individual characteristics of penguins, the film purports to follow a single male named Rex in his search for a mate, but who can tell? We’re all proud racists where penguins are concerned.

Speaking of racists, back in the ’50s, kids’ nature films were narrated in avuncular third person by a Midwestern Republican, presumably wearing a cardigan and smoking a pipe, who would refer to raccoons as “rascals” or “little scamps.” Whatever the inarticulable German word for “friendly condescension” is, that was our basic attitude toward the vast majesty of nature, at which we cocked a collective eyebrow, as if the environment had just sneaked a sip of dad’s beer and then burped. Nature — it’s funny and cute! It can fit through any opening it can get its furry little head through!

These days, our anthropomorphic condescension mostly follows a formula established by America’s Funniest Home Videos of voicing the animals’ internal monologues, often in humiliating falsetto voices. That’s the model followed by this kids’ movie, a clear descendant of those earlier “man’s wry superiority to nature” films, Allen our contemporary version of the society-affirming, stentorian Disney narrator with his pleated trousers and fondness for whites-only diners. The cuddliness of nature documentaries is a stark contrast to actual biology, as seen in crocodile attacks and those cute little rascals that eat fish tongues and attach themselves to the stumps.

Conclusion: People are terrified of “outside,” and construct a mental model that reduces the might and diversity of nature to waddling adorability in order to throw a veil over the inevitability of death that will be either slow and painful or fast and painful. And that is where the penguin movies come from. Until the moment that the Yellowstone caldera finally erupts, ejecting 300 cubic miles of molten rock across the entire hemisphere and burying North America under a foot of ash, we’ll probably just keep distracting ourselves with panda bears that talk like Sinbad or whatever.