Movies

‘Penguins’ is a long way from ‘Happy Feet’

A scene from Disneynature’s documentary “Penguins.”
A scene from Disneynature’s documentary “Penguins.”

Steve (voiced by Ed Helms), the star of Disneynature’s documentary “Penguins,” epitomizes middle-class common sense and values. 

A member of the pint-sized Adélie species, Steve has returned home to the colony where he was born. There, along with hundreds of thousands of other Adélies, he must find a mate, have a couple of kids, and protect them from such dangers as killer whales, skuas (a nasty, predatory seabird), and shockingly monstrous leopard seals for the few months before the kids are old enough to swim off on their own and start the cycle of life again.

In order to tell this story, which takes up all of 76 minutes of screen time, the filmmakers shot thousands of hours of film during 900 filming days over the course of three years in hellish Antarctic conditions. I spoke on the phone with Jeff Wilson who co-directed the film with Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, about the process. A veteran nature photographer who has worked on David Attenborough’s BBC nature series, Wilson was calling from London where he was observing the local fauna.

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Q. How did you come up with the character of Steve? 

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A. We had a clear idea of the character from the beginning because I had been working with the Adélie penguins for almost 15 years and I knew their behavior. We would shoot from October to spring, when there would be a huge number of penguins in the colony, over 500,000, so we had a lot to choose from to depict Steve. We walked around and found the ones who were not very good at what they do, which was a key to making the character of Steve, because he’s a first-time father and just learning the job. 

Q. What are your thoughts on anthropomorphizing wild animals?

A. I spent a lot of time with the Adélies and other animals; and if you spend enough time with any animal you come to understand their emotions and personalities and realize that humans don’t have a monopoly on those qualities. The anthropomorphism is a way of conveying the nature of the animal to an audience that has no experience of them. In our job we observe our subjects for thousands of hours and understand them inside out, much more than a scientist would be doing who might be ecology based and busy counting numbers or picking up data. Our job is just to sit and watch. And from that you get amazing footage and strong attachments.

Q. Like pandas, penguins are an audience favorite. What is their appeal?

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A. It’s twofold. If you watch raw footage, they have an innate comedy to them and you don’t need to embellish it. But they are also slightly vulnerable — the Adélies especially, because they are a little smaller but have a certain pluckiness. People recognize themselves in these little fellows standing up to the big guy, the kind of David vs. Goliath appeal. They also have a way of looking completely expressionless -- in the way we understand expression. Because of that we can project our own feelings onto them. 

Q. They have a kind of a Buster Keaton thing going for them.

A. I would say that Buster Keaton had a penguin thing going for him. But kids especially love them. I had a viewing yesterday in which 70 per cent of the audience were children and 30 per cent were parents and people involved with making the film. The kids were just absolutely engaged. I have children who are 4, 6, and 8 and I didn’t expect the 4-year-old to last more than 20 minutes. But he was fascinated and asking questions through the whole thing. And the response of the filmmakers was: This is why we do our job; look at all the children in the audience going absolutely mad for this.

Q. I saw a video online of a talk you gave in which you said that Adélie penguins are less like those in “Happy Feet” (2006) and more like Freddy Krueger . Could you elaborate?

A. The penguin colony is an extremely competitive place. The point I was trying to make in that video is that while there are moments in our film of unbridled joy like in “Happy Feet,” there are also moments that are driven by pure survival and that include violence and unfairness and unneighborly behavior. But it makes them more likable in my book that they have a range of behavior and emotions rather than just being a docile penguin.

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Q. So you don’t mind it when they vomit on you.

A. No. But after about two and a half months of being getting covered with penguin vomit and penguin pee — and of course there is no running water where we are working and we never have any showers — you realize you have to go home because you can’t escape smelling like rotting fish.

Q. I can see you love your job.

A. I do. I absolutely love my job. Because I’m such an animal nerd. Those thousands of hours you are away from your friends and family are only bearable because you’re sitting in front of something in the natural world that you find endlessly fascinating. It’s such a privilege that somebody would employ you to be an observer of that world and be a communicator of it. 

Q. How much time do you spend on location?

A. In any given year maybe four or five months. Before I became a responsible father, or am trying to be one, it was about eight or nine months. I’m the child of two conservationists. I grew up in Africa. My whole life I have basically been living in nature. I am always drawn to it. Standing here in London I probably feel as out of place as one can feel. My natural habitat is in the wild.

“Penguins” opens April 17 (Earth Day) at Boston and suburban theaters.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.