Penguins are among us - at least in pop culture

Posted Tuesday, May. 21, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Humans have always been partial to penguins. We study them in zoos, use their image to sell products, and laugh at their cartoon antics on television and in the movies.

According to Wayne Lynch, author of Penguins of the World (2007, Firefly Books), penguins appeal to us because of their “upright stance, unwary curious nature, comical waddling gait, large heads — many with golden crests or bright patches of color — and fluffy potbellied chicks that resemble overstuffed laundry bags.”

Penguins 3D, in theaters Friday, is the latest penguin property to assault our senses. With this in mind, we thought it’d be fun to take a look at penguins in popular culture. Those tuxedoed titans of the cold (and not so cold) climes have dazzled and delighted us for decades, and it’s time we gave them their due.

What is a penguin?

Evolved from birds dating back tens of millions of years ago, penguins have wings and are covered with feathers, but they cannot fly. Their wings are akin to flippers, helping their torpedo-shaped bodies zip rapidly through the water.

Penguins lay eggs, mate for life and eat fish, squid and other sea life. However, they do not live in or near the Arctic north. In fact, all 17 penguin species reside in the Southern Hemisphere. The popular Emperor Penguin lives in the Antarctic, but certain species, such as the Galapagos Penguin, thrive in warmer and even tropical climates.

Penguins in print

Penguin Books was established in the United Kingdom in 1935 by Sir Allen Lane, who wanted a “dignified but flippant” symbol for his fledgling business. After his secretary suggested a penguin, Lane sent another employee to the London Zoo to sketch some penguins, and thus a logo was born.

The esteemed publishing house specialized in inexpensive but high-quality paperbacks sold to the masses through such outlets as train stations, tobacconists and department stores, along with traditional bookstores. Penguin revolutionized the publishing industry by making the works of such authors as Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie affordable for the general public.

The Penguin logo is still in use today.

Countless children’s books starring penguins have been released over the years by a variety of publishers, most famously the award-winning Mr. Popper’s Penguins (1939), written by Richard and Florence Atwater. The book, which was made into a feature film starring Jim Carrey in 2011, details the plight of a poor house-painter named Mr. Popper, who must decide what to do with a pair of penguins who have spawned 10 babies.

Recent examples of nonfiction include Anne Schreiber’s National Geographic Readers: Penguins! (2009, National Geographic Children’s Books) and Kay de Silva’s Penguins: Amazing Pictures & Fun Facts on Animals in Nature (2012, Amazon Kindle).

Penguins on the

big screen

Penguins 3D tells the tale of King Penguin, who lives in a community of 6 million penguins on a remote sub-Antarctic island. To fulfill his destiny and earn a place among his penguin peers, the patrician protagonist must find a mate and raise a family.

Written and narrated by naturalist and filmmaker David Attenborough, Penguins 3D, like 2005’s beloved March of the Penguins, is a documentary.

For those who like their penguin-populated pictures animated and comical, there are several recent offerings, including Surf’s Up (2007), Happy Feet (2006) and Madagascar (2005). The latter features the short film The Madagascar Penguins in a Christmas Caper as a special feature on the Blu-ray release.

And let’s not forget Toy Story 2 (1999), in which a toy penguin named Wheezy gets a new squeaker and sings the film’s closing theme, You’ve Got a Friend in Me.

Penguin comedy is also on display in two live-action Adam Sandler movies: Billy Madison (1995) and 50 First Dates (2004).

For classic film fans, look no further than the fondly remembered scene in Mary Poppins (1964), in which a quartet of animated penguins join Dick Van Dyke as he does The Penguin Dance, with Julie Andrews looking on.

Penguins on the

small screen

Penguins have been popular in children’s television programming for decades, dating back at least to the 1957 debut of The Woody Woodpecker Show. The animated program featured Chilly Willy, a penguin who lives in Alaska, eats pancakes, tries to keep warm and tussles with a dog named Smedley. Chilly was originally a motion picture penguin, appearing in 50 short films from 1953 to 1972.

Another prominent penguin program was Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, airing on CBS from 1963 to 1966. Tennessee was voiced memorably by Don Adams ( Get Smart), and his pal, Chumley the Walrus, was voiced by Bradley Bolke. The duo would routinely escape Megapolis Zoo, much to the chagrin of zookeeper Stanley Livingstone (Mort Marshall) and his assistant, Flunky (Kenny Delmar).

More recent is Pingu, a claymation program that originated in Switzerland in 1986 and made its way to the U.S. in 1996. Set in Antarctica, the show focuses on penguin families who live and work in igloos. Belonging to one such family is Pingu, a mischievous penguin who likes to go on adventures with his little sister, Pinga, and his best friend, Robby the Seal. The show remains an international hit, thanks in part to the honking “penguin language” the characters speak.

Penguin humor in adult programming is less frequent, but it does occur. One of the more amusing examples is “Pawnee Zoo,” the first episode of the second season of Parks and Recreation. Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) unwittingly becomes a public proponent of same-sex marriage when she hosts a wedding between two male penguins. The story was inspired by the real-life Harry and Pepper, who partnered up at the San Francisco Zoo.

Penguins in the comics

Created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, The Penguin debuted in 1941 in Detective Comics #58. Short, chubby and burdened with a beaklike nose, The Penguin uses birds and various weaponized umbrellas to commit crimes.

Batman and Robin have battled The Penguin for decades in the pages of DC Comics, but most civilians know the super-villain from the campy Batman television series, where he was played with scene-chewing gusto by the late Burgess Meredith. In 1992, Danny DeVito grossed everyone out with his tawdry take on the waddling warmonger in Batman Returns.

Perhaps the most beloved penguin in the comics is Opus, the bowtie-wearing star of the Reagan-era comic strip Bloom County. Creator Berkeley Breathed referred to him as an “existentialist penguin” attracted to “svelte buoyant waterfowl.”

Breathed followed the brilliant Bloom County with the less successful but still interesting Outland, a Sundays-only strip that ran from 1989 to 1995, and Opus, which ran from 2003 to 2008.

Other penguins in comics include: Pokey the Penguin, an online strip created by Steve Havelka in 1998; Frobisher, who appeared in Doctor Who Magazine during the 1980s; Professor Percival Penguin from The Ongoing Adventures of Rocket Llama webcomic; and Sparky the Wonder Penguin from a weekly strip called This Modern World.

Playable penguins

Penguins have played supporting roles in numerous video games, and they’ve taken center stage a number of times as well, beginning with the 1982 arcade classic Pengo, which was ported to the Atari 2600, Atari 5200 and Sega Game Gear. Players control Pengo as he walks around pushing ice blocks into enemy Sno-Bees, a fun and simple yet challenging joystick-and-button concept that epitomizes the golden age of video games.

Other classic penguin games include: Antarctic Adventure (1984), a character racer for the ColecoVision; Thin Ice (1986), a skating/maze game for the Intellivision; Penguin Land (1988), an action puzzle for the Sega Master System; Amazing Penguin (1990), a maze game for the Game Boy; Penguin Wars (1990), a dodge ball title for the Game Boy; and Attack of the Mutant Penguins (1996), a strategy game for the Atari Jaguar.

In 2005, virtual penguins went viral with New Horizon Interactive’s Club Penguin, a massively multiplayer online game (MMO) geared toward kids. Using cartoon penguin avatars, players attend parties, drive vehicles, use gadgets, purchase items (including igloos), play mini-games (such as fishing and sled racing) and much more.

The success of Club Penguin led to a Disney buyout in 2007 and various console versions of the game, such as Club Penguin Game Day! (2011) for the Nintendo Wii.

Modern penguin games not related to Club Penguin include Defendin’ de Penguin (2008) for the Nintendo DS and Wii and an assortment of movie-based games, such as The Penguins of Madagascar: Dr. Blowhole Returns—Again! for the DS, Wii, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

Musical penguins

The Penguins, the doo-wop group of the 1950s and early ’60s, hit big in 1954 with Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine), which reached No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was featured prominently in Back to the Future (1985).

Penguin is the name of the seventh Fleetwood Mac album, released in 1973, two years before Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham joined the band. It was the first Fleetwood record to be released after the departure of Danny Kirwan.

Lesser known is the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, a British folk/jazz group founded in 1972 by the late Simon Jeffes, and Penguin Prison, an electronica act composed solely of Chris Glover, a New York musician, singer and producer.

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