Imagine narrator Patton Oswalt in his familiar, comfort-food, expressive voice welcoming us to Netflix’s eight-part docuseries “Penguin Town”:
“There are a LOT of movies about penguins. Penguins on ice, penguins in the snow, tons of marching. Then … there’s these birds. They boldly go where no penguins have gone before. Meet the endangered African penguins.”
That’s right: African penguins. With little pink patches around their eyes, smallish physiques compared to some of the more robust members of their species and a distinctive braying sound that sounds like a perturbed jackass, a colony of African penguins returns each year to Simon’s Town, South Africa, as longtime monogamous couples seek to breed once again, while the younger birds seek out their lifetime partners — all while waddling among the humans at the beach, in the parking lots and in nearby neighborhoods.
“Penguin Town” is a featherweight documentary about this amazing species, with Oswalt providing light and humorous narration, some penguin couples getting names, bouncy pop music and graphics straight out of a reality dating show: “Six hot months! One wild colony! No rules!” It’s filled with facts, but they’re always draped in the conceit of the penguins pretty much taking over the town, while the “giants,” a.k.a. humans, are seen mostly from the PPOV (Penguins’ Point of View) and then disappear from the series when the pandemic hits and Simon’s Town sadly becomes a ghost town.
As awesome as these penguins are, the adults all look pretty much the same, so we have to rely on the filmmakers (and narrator Oswalt) to remind us which story we’re following from scene to scene. Even though assigning names to penguin couples is awfully cutesy, it’s actually an invaluable device as we meet the Bougainvilleas, who have been together for years and zone in immediately on their regular spot under a large bush offering comfort and protection; the Courtyards, a couple who set up camp in a garden on a posh estate, and the Culverts, who are new at this and find the struggle is real to find a safe spot for their eggs to hatch, especially with the elements, some unfriendly members of their own colony and the local wildlife presenting threats. (Wild animals, including the lynx-like caracal, were emboldened by the lack of humans in Simon’s Town, and we follow one such wildcat as she stalks her penguin prey.)
For all its sweetness and upbeat nature, “Penguin Town” doesn’t ignore the realities of life for this endangered species. A junior penguin suffers life-threatening bites from a fur seal. One of the featured penguins never returns to its home nest. This series is about as far as you can get from one of those documentaries where we see nature’s violence in all its necessary brutality, but amid all the joy and sweetness, we see and hear reminders that the life of the African penguin is often harsh, and in large part it’s up to this small but hearty and steadfast band of travelers to keep the species going. How can you not root for them to have a successful and (re)productive stay in Penguin Town?