Judge Gordon Sullivan thought this was a reality show about hockey players.
A real-life, triumphant, comic, coming-of-age tale.
One of the greatest moments in Werner Herzog's masterful Encounters at the End of the World features a penguin marching towards the interior of Antarctica, to what will almost certainly be a slow and painful death. This is a cutting reminder of the dangers of the Antarctic environment, but also a commentary on the capriciousness of nature: some penguins simply wander off to suicide, for no apparent reason. Of course this moment also reveals what was left out of the mega-hit March of the Penguins. Though anyone with even the barest hint of knowledge about documentary filmmaking knows that hundreds of hours of material must have been shot for March of the Penguins, but we only see what's in the film. What Herzog's brief moment show us is the dark side that March left out in its narrative of love and mating. Adventures of the Penguin King is much more March of the Penguins than Encounters at the End of the World, offering viewers a overly cutesy take on the mating habits of the Emperor Penguin.
Facts of the Case
The Penguin King is totally in the mold of March of the Penguins. That means we get the narrative of one penguin (or, as we learn, what appears to be one penguin but is actually several) as he approaches the mating season. Tim Allen narrates the story of the "bachelor" life of this penguin, offering cheesy remarks about his life that accompany some beautiful shots of the penguins of Antarctica.
Whatever you think of heterosexual monogamy for humans, turning to the so-called "natural world" for support is probably not the best thing to do. There's actually very little heterosexual monogamy in the "animal kingdom." What makes March of the Penguins such an odd film is how hard it has to try to make the penguins it documents fit into a human-centric model of behavior. Though the penguin species in the film only mate for a single season, March turned it into a grand love story about finding "the one" and the "romantic" dedication of the penguins to each other as they raised this egg into a chick. It's cute, I guess, but Morgan Freeman's narration often doesn't match the actual reality of the way these penguins behave.
Adventures of the Penguin King follows in the footsteps of March of the Penguins. However, instead of offering a story of romantic love between penguins, Adventures focuses on the bachelor adventures of the Emperor penguin. So now instead of every shot being evidence for immortal love, the Emperor penguin's shenanigans are taken as representative of his bachelor lifestyle. It's as much of a stretch as the previous film, but at least Adventures acknowledges the silliness of its premise. Though I'm not a huge fan of Tim Allen's narration (which apparently replaced David Attenborough's from the British version), he is at least in on the joke.
That, however, becomes the problem with Adventures of the Penguin King. Though the penguins themselves are as photogenic as they've ever been, this film is pitched between audiences. Those going for the simply story of penguins (like children) will miss the jokes aimed at stereotypes of bachelor life. Adults, however, looking for a more serious examination of penguin habits will probably tire quickly of the sophomoric jokes. This neither-fish-nor-fowl approach does the film no favors, even if the intention is to broaden the audience with humorous appeal.
Perhaps the saddest thing about Adventures of the Penguin King, though, is the way that viewers don't get to decide which version to view. Though this set includes three discs, it only includes the Allen-narrated version. If the David Attenborough-narrated version (released as simply Penguins) were also included then this release would so much easier to recommend. I haven't seen the Attenborough version, but it's hard to imagine that his narration wouldn't improve on Allen's goofy bachelor persona. It's especially weird given the willingness to make this a three-disc set, since it probably wouldn't take much more effort to include the alternate cut.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At least Adventures of the Penguin King (Blu-ray) is good. This is a three-disc affair, with a 3D presentation on one Blu-ray disc, a standard presentation on another, and a DVD copy as well. All three look good, showcasing the film's 1.78:1 frame (MVC for the 3D, and AVC for the 2D, both 1080p for the Blu-rays and anamorphic for the DVD). I'm not at all sold on the 3D effects, but the hi-def presentation showcases pleasing detail and lots of well-saturated colors. DTS-HD 5.1 and 2.0 tracks are included. Allen's narration is always clean and well balanced with the film's score. The score has clarity and depth as well, even if it is a bit generic.
The set's lone substantial extra is a 32-minute making-of featurette. It includes a lot of behind-the-scenes footage, and a healthy number of bloopers. The most galling thing is that it's narrated by David Attenborough, so American viewers can get a sense of what they're missing. His narration, at least presented in this featurette, is much more informative and inviting than Allen's.
In the film's defense, there are some great shots of penguin life to be found in the film's running time. Though not quite BBC-caliber in terms of gorgeous slow-mo imagery, Adventures of the Penguin King captures some fun and funny moments with the penguins, and the hi-def image makes the group shots of penguins particularly compelling. Those simply looking for another set of pretty images of penguins can turn off the sound and bask in beauty of the film.
Adventures of the Penguin King attempts to do for bachelor penguins what March of the Penguins did for mating pairs. Though I can't knock its often beautiful visuals, the overall story simply doesn't hang together. The narration is a little too corny for adults, and a bit too adult for the kids. Adventures of the Penguin King (Blu-ray) is the way to go if you want to see it, however, as it boasts a pretty impressive presentation.
Could be better, but this set is not guilty.
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