As with the distributor’s previous, species-specific features like Chimpanzees and Bears, Penguins is non-fiction, but it aims to hook viewers by turning the anthropomorphism dial up to 11. While its striking visuals show Antarctica and the familiar waddling formations, predatory leopard seals and eggs hatching on the ice, the voiceover makes it clear that this is a story not just about icebound sea birds. Rather, this is a movie about “extraordinary couple fighting to raise a family.”
If you close your eyes, the trailer could almost be for a romantic comedy or a family adventure story — and that’s precisely the point. As “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons plays, the voiceover winks at the harsh, windswept realities of penguin life, describing the perspective of a penguin named Steve — “a gentleman who stands out from the crowd.” The voiceover intones, “He’s looking for love. He likes long walks on the beach, fishing and collecting rocks.”
Penguins have proven to be reliable box-office winners, as Happy Feet, the Madagascar animated franchise and of course the documentary March of the Penguins have all shown. (Jim Carrey’s 2011 misfire Mr. Popper’s Penguins turned out to be a rare exception.) If any distributor knows how to optimize the commercial prospects of a flock of flightless birds, it is Disneynature. The 10-year-old unit has averaged more than $20 million at the domestic box office on each of its seven releases to date.
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