Almost perennially it seems, humanity’s favourite flightless birds – the humble penguin – descend in numbers upon UK box offices, looking to re-capture the imagination of children and adults alike on the big screen. Consistently – and sometimes gratingly – anthropomorphised, there’s much to like about the black and white, dinner-suited fish receptacles, who mate for life and show enormous dedication to their offspring. A basic re-skin of Sky’s The Bachelor King, David Attenborough-narrated The Penguin King 3D (2012) now receives a theatrical release thanks to Sony’s much-vaunted 4K technology.
Running at a slight 75 minutes in order to cater for its young key demographic, the film follows the story of the latest hatchling born on the Island of South Georgia’s sub-Antarctic ‘Penguin City’ – an enormous gathering of over six million king penguins. Huddled together alongside enormous, lumbering elephant seals, barking fur seals and nesting albatross, the male inhabitants of Penguin City tirelessly incubate their as-yet un-hatched chicks, whilst the females of the species stock up on fish out at sea.
The females’ return from the ocean is almost perfectly synchronised with the arrival of the next generation, who gorge on their respective mother’s regurgitated herring chowder, leaving the dads to descend upon the island’s surrounding fish buffet. However, even the newborns that survive the constant threat of skua attack (predatory sea birds, described as blood-thirsty by the kindly Attenborough) still face an up-hill struggle to reach maturity.
It’s always difficult to gauge the worth of theatrically-released, TV series-offshoots such as The Penguin King 3D. Presumably planned as the family counter-programming option in the week that Bond #23, Sam Mendes’ Skyfall (2012), hits UK multiplexes and IMAX screens, there’s precious little to actually dislike about the penguin-packed proceedings. Whilst never quite reaching the same sumptuous visual excellence as the last few BBC nature series, the icy environs of South Georgia are certainly easy on the eye, providing the perfect backdrop for this kid-friendly tale of animal maturation. What’s more, Attenborough’s commentary is tailored yet never condescending to its audience, more educational than it is patronising.
Whilst The Penguin King 3D was never going to (or trying to) complete with something like Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World (2007) for life-affirming existential meditations on the nature of life and death in Earth’s harshest, most remote reaches, what it does provide is a simple, no-frills presentation of the penguin life cycle, suitably moderated for its target audience. What’s more, who doesn’t like the odd shot of a photo-bombing fur seal?