These happy feet walk a dangerous road.
Every October, millions of adorable Adélie penguins brave the unforgiving weather and fearsome predators of Antarctica in order to hatch and rear their young. It’s a perilous journey that takes them hundreds of miles through oceans, ice, ferocious storms and minus-70 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, with no guarantee of success or survival.
And boy do they make it look cute.
The new Disneynature documentary “Penguins,” now in theaters, gives audiences a close-up look at the lives of these quirky little animals — who look Godzilla-sized on an IMAX screen — and even uncovers never-before-witnessed behaviors during mating season. The film focuses primarily on one Adélie named Steve, and his quest to become a dad.
“We wanted to tell a story about a first-time father,” co-director Jeff Wilson tells The Post. “We were very focused on trying to find one who’s not the perfect penguin. We were looking for a doofus.”
They got their wish. Early on during the crew’s 900 days of location shooting, they encountered Steve, a clumsy 5-year-old, 2-foot-tall, 15-pound penguin who comically dropped the stones he was collecting for his nest, appeared to mutter to himself in frustration and frequently toppled over as if on a sitcom.
“When you see something happening like that in front of your eyes, you really understand that there’s a [story] there ready to be told,” Wilson says.
That story includes Steve staking out a spot for his nest on a rocky hill populated by thousands of other penguins, and crooning out a song to win a mate. Once he finds her, and their baby penguins are born, Steve and his mate each take regular 100-mile journeys to the ocean to get fish to feed them — by regurgitating in the chicks’ mouths.
Capturing the daily activities of Steve & Co. put the filmmakers constantly at risk as they dealt with the complexities of their environment, from the months of 24-hour brightness to the 16-foot penguin-hunting leopard seals, each armed with a serious set of teeth. No one crew member was able to stay in Antarctica for more than six weeks at a time due to the rough conditions.
“It’s probably the hardest film we’ve ever done,” says co-director Alastair Fothergill. “It is the coldest, most remote place on our planet. It’s very typical to have storms for two or three days that keep you in your tent. And though we spent three seasons working down there . . . we probably filmed on less than half of those days because we wanted the right light and the right conditions.”
But all the time and dedication led to amazing new discoveries about penguins. In one scene, a fully grown chick attempts to swim out to the ocean, but is nearly killed by a hungry leopard seal. The theater audience nervously squirms, but (spoiler alert) the chick thankfully escapes the leopard seal’s clutches unharmed, remarkably by playing dead.
“We think it’s new to science,” says Fothergill. “It’s certainly never been filmed before . . . [diver] Doug Anderson noticed it happening and filmed it so beautifully.
“That’s one of the things that’s so exciting about filming nature: serendipity, things happen. Nature rules and it’s our job to adapt to it.”
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