Film Review: The Penguin Counters

Everyone’s favorite animals are featured—if maybe not enough—in this doc that details their preservation in a changing world climate.
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Penguins are irresistible, compact as they are, the nearest to human of all the birds, with their upright stance, quizzical expression and adorable waddle. And no one has fallen harder under their spell than Ron Naveen, who gave up a law practice to pursue his passion. In The Penguin Counters, the directing team of Harriet Gordon Getzels and Peter Getzels follow Naveen and a ragtag band of field biologists to the Antarctic to count the ever-dwindling numbers of penguins, indicators as they are of climate change and ocean health.

Global warming has caused the Antarctic Peninsula to heat up by five degrees centigrade with a profound impact on Naveen’s favorites, the chinstrap penguin species, an especially fetching breed—the first he ever saw—with their distinctive namesake marking beneath their beaks.

The group’s idol is Ernest Shackleton, the early-20th-century British explorer who commanded the ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, joined by his right-hand man, John Wild. Part of the new expedition’s purpose is to reunite the two pioneer explorers by interring Wild’s ashes—he died in Africa—next to Shackleton’s in a small cemetery on South Georgia Island. The camerawork, magnificent throughout with the starkly gorgeous landscapes, captures a jaw-dropping moment as the gathered mourners walk to the gravesite past a gaping, lounging sea lion.

The historical coverage of Shackleton’s deeds and influence, as well as the long boat ride to the Peninsula, while informative and engaging (they all eat particularly well, with luscious looking lasagna and spare ribs), somewhat distract from what we all came to see—the penguins. One wishes more time had been spent on actual footage of these remarkable birds and the techniques of tracking and recording their number—eventually, an arrived-at 79,849. But, overall, this is an engaging look at the preservation of a creature that, with the single exception of pandas, has probably brought more joy to us than any other living creature.

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