By Sarah Osman
For kids and penguin lovers, Penguin Town is a gushy fait accompli. But the series also has rewards for others.
Penguin Town, streaming on Netflix.
Like most teachers at the end of the year, I had no idea what to do with my students (middle school, ages 12 to 13), so I decided to show them Penguin Town, an eight-part docuseries on Netflix. The first thing my students noticed was narrator Patton Oswalt’s voice (whom they referred to as “the rat from Ratatouille”). Oswalt’s dry quips about the penguins did double duty: they appealed to my students, but they also taught them a great deal about penguins. The kids were instantly charmed with the series after the first episode (which was good news for me, because I didn’t have anything else planned).
Penguin Town doesn’t focus on just any old dancing or marching penguin; the series specifically focuses on African penguins. As Oswalt informs us, African penguins do not have to live in freezing temperatures, so this particular group of birds returns each year to Simon’s Town, South Africa. Penguins are monogamous (they present their future partner with a pebble or stone to clinch the “proposal”). This colony supports a range of relationships, from long-term couples to bachelors trying to find their soulmate. Unlike other species of penguins, the African kind are quite charismatic. Like human tourists, these little cuties wander all over the town, happily encountering the “giants” (us) along the way.
At times, it can be a bit difficult to differentiate between penguins. They are all adorable and they all look alike. To help viewers separate them, the filmmakers have given each of the leading penguins a name. This is an assist, but it remains pretty tricky keeping the penguins apart. For fans who just want to ooh and ah at how cute the birds are, this isn’t a problem. But it is an obstacle for those interested in an individual penguin’s story. The various penguins include the “Bougainvilleas,” a married couple who plop down together in the same nest; the “Courtyards,” who set up in a posh neighborhood; and the “Culverts,” newlyweds who are struggling to find their new home.
To its credit, Penguin Town does more than show us penguins waddling around and being generally endearing. The series doesn’t shy away from presenting the dangers the penguins face. One baby penguin barely survives after being bitten by a seal. African penguins are endangered, and not only because of the various predators they face. There are also the threats posed by the Climate Crisis: oil spills have destroyed their habitats, so penguins have been forced to breed out in the open, which can often attract their enemies.
For kids and penguin lovers, Penguin Town is a gushy fait accompli. But it also has rewards for others. The stakes are fairly low and Oswalt’s voice is endearing. You don’t really have to pay close attention, so you can dip in and out of episodes, which makes the series ideal fodder for families with small children as well as adults who simply want to zen out. Beware! African penguins bray like donkeys. But, aside from that noise factor, the stars of Penguin Town are pretty damn cute.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Young Hollywood and High Voltage Magazine. She will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences under the Trump Era.