Penguins haven’t exactly been rare birds on movie screens the last several years. We’ve seen the surprise successes of the 2005 documentary “March of the Penguins” and the animated musical “Happy Feet.” We’ve had even more ’toon incarnations in “Happy Feet Two” and “Surf’s Up.” We’ve gotten really animated versions from the “Madagascar” franchise. And Jim Carrey learned to live with a CG waddle of them in “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.”
Clearly, then, naturalist David Attenborough (brother of director-actor Richard Attenborough) and the makers of the new IMAX documentary “Penguins 3D” face a challenge in trying to set their film apart. Their strategy is to let their narrative flow mostly, well, naturally, and not sculpt or massage story lines in a relentlessly conspicuous way. The filmmakers don’t even give their spotlighted King Penguins cutely indigenous-sounding names — they’re simply “the Male,” “the Female,” and “the Chick.”
The birds are just three of the visually staggering 6 million penguins packed onto the shores of South Georgia, a remote British territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean. (The film’s 3-D imagery is particularly effective in giving a sense of just how teeming this so-called “Penguin City” is.) The instinctual tale they offer is semi-familiar, and straightforwardly told: Male and Female mate, monogamously. Male keeps unmoving watch over their single egg for months, through all manner of bottom-of-the-world meteorological misery. Penguins head to sea in search of food. On occasion, they’re stalked by predators as exotic as they are — including a leopard seal, in another great, showy bit of 3-D.
That’s about as high-impact or razzle-dazzle as the filmmakers are inclined to get. Yes, they indulge the aquarium field-trip demographic with a shot of a penguin apparently pooping on the go, but they do it without comment from Attenborough. A penguin trio trying to figure out a detour around beach-bogarting elephant seals is an atypical, more visibly structured sequence — but judging by the amused reaction of aquarium staffers at a preview screening, it passes muster. The creatures here aren’t characters so much as respectfully, keenly observed wildlife — which makes for entertainment that’s modest, but also, presumably, more honest.