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Penguins ***

by Ruben Rosario

Saccharine and cutesy? Yep, but so what? Stunning wildlife photography and Ed Helms' winning narration conspire to make Disneynature's latest guided tour a charming portrait of cuddly, anthropomorphized critters doing that thing cuddly, anthropomorphized critters do. Like, totally adorbs. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

He waddles into the frame like the cutest latecomer to a cocktail reception you've ever seen, and a big, goofy grin is all but unavoidable. There's a grocery list of objections one may hold against “Penguins,” Disneynature's easily disgestible new entry in its pantheon of photogenic wildlife tales. But once its flippered leading dude makes his giggle-inducing entrance, they largely go out the window. Think of a G-rated spin on Pam Grier gliding into the Los Angeles International Airport's baggage claim area at the beginning of “Jackie Brown” and you get the aesthetically pleasing picture.

This Adélie penguin's name, narrator Ed Helms reveals in disarmingly self-deprecating manner, is Steve, and he's a little behind the curve when it comes to the arduous journey ahead of him in that humongous chunk of ice known as Antarctica. Directors Alastair Fotherhill and Jeff Wilson depict his struggles as he stakes out a place among other males in hotly contested (or is it coldly contested?) real estate. The goal: to be prepared to make a good first impression when the females arrive, and to be able to build a nest out of rocks. When the girl penguins show up, the filmmakers turn the ensuing mating ritual into family-friendly speed dating, climaxing in an endearing payoff.

Helms alternates between narrating duties and providing Steve's actions with proper English translation. “Excuse me, pardon me,” Helms says as his feathered alter ego makes his way among the densely populated terrain. The audience cooing should come across as condescending and insufferable, but the “Daily Show” vet sells the screenwriter David Fowler's cornball lines with effortless flair.

Fowler also deserves credit for turning potentially dry subject matter into sweetly edible comfort food cinema. We're a long way from True-Life Adventures, Disney's Oscar-winning series of nature-themed features and shorts, made between 1948 and 1960, which include as “The Living Desert,” “The Vanishing Prairie” and “White Wilderness.” Those films favored sober, just-the-facts narration that made the films informative and engaging, but also made the viewing experience akin to taking your medicine. These movies were good for you and kept reminding you of that. The Disneynature series, by contrast, molds the Darwinian challenges of surviving in the wild into live-action equivalents of the hero's journey that continue to propel the Mouse House's animated releases.

“Penguins” is a textbook example. All the telltale signs are in place: runt of the litter, a set of adversities to overcome, bumbling stabs at courtship. In theory, the contrarian in me would shake his fist at Fotherhill and Wilson's anthropomorphizing of their Antarctic creatures, big and small, populating their nonfiction narrative. And yet it works, because they fuse their winking at the audience with an absorbing portrait of the Adélies' cyclical struggles. As Steve and his mate (who, in what could be construed as gender disparity, is rendered mute) embark on parenthood, the film segues into a chronicle of raising your “kids” right, only the stakes here are life and death. The school bullies in this setting will actually eat you if you don't watch your step.

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Purists will likely carp at Fotherhill and Wilson's calculated sugarcoating. The film's depiction of penguin deaths is minimized, the better to soften the blow. It's here where “Penguins” could have used some toughening up. We've been down this tundra before, in the superior “March of the Penguins.” That Oscar winner's narrator, Morgan Freeman, saw no need to add whimsical dialogue to its emperor penguins (though its French version did just that), and the finished product was the stronger for it.

But “Penguins” delivers on the stimulating vistas and neatly composed tableaux. The filmmakers, dealing with grueling shooting conditions, remain aware of their subjects' visual possibilities. When they march, their exodus sometimes resembles massive crowd shots in Golden Age epics. When Steve and his mate share a cuddle, the way their heads touch is photographed in a way that enhances the intimate moment. When Steve's chicks clamor to be fed, the imagery conveys the trials of parenthood more convincingly than many of Disney's live-action offerings. And when Steve regurgitates vomit into his chicks' mouths, the movie doesn't shy away from the feeding's ick factor.

At 76 minutes, “Penguins” also has brevity and concision on its side. The length feels just right for this doc that capably fulfills its duties as bright matinee fare. The edges might have been sanded off, but this is one guided wildlife tour worth taking.