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Originally published Tuesday, December 19, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Penguins are pop culture's hottest thing

The world's coldest black-and-white bird is suddenly red hot. From holiday decorations to huggable stuffed animals to the nation's No. 1 movie three weeks...

Newhouse News Service

The world's coldest black-and-white bird is suddenly red hot.

From holiday decorations to huggable stuffed animals to the nation's No. 1 movie three weeks in a row, penguins have never been so popular.

"March of the Penguins," an Oscar winner for best documentary, got this penguin party started in 2005. "Happy Feet," which bested James Bond and Denzel Washington at the box office recently, is continuing the penguin-palooza.

Up next: "Farce of the Penguins," an R-rated spoof of the documentary, featuring the voices of Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Applegate (it comes out on DVD in January), and "Surf's Up," an animated picture due out next summer about a penguin who would rather surf than fish.

But it's not just movies: These feathered, flightless birds are showing up in books, household décor, toys and clothing.

Pop-culture expert David Feldman, author of the book "Do Penguins Have Knees?," thinks he knows why.

"They're really really cute," said Feldman, whose nickname in high school was Penguin because he loved the bird and Burgess Meredith, who played the villainous Penguin on television's "Batman."

Feldman's own experience as an author backs him up. He has written 11 books in what he calls his "imponderables" series, filled with answers to oddball questions. "Penguins" is by far his best seller, a fact he attributes to its cute cover. "What Are Hyenas Laughing At Anyway?" didn't sell nearly as well.

And, yes, to answer the question posed on the cover of his book, penguins do have knees.

You can't see them, said Feldman, because penguins are discreet. "They don't wear miniskirts."

A pretend-penguin history

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Mumble, the tap-dancing bird who stars in "Happy Feet," is just the latest in a line of popular pretend penguins. Here's a look at these fictional flightless birds through the ages:

"Mr. Popper's Penguins," first published in 1938, remains a classic in children's literature. Written by Richard and Florence Atwater, the book tells the story of Mr. Popper, an armchair traveler, who comes to have 12 Adelie penguins living in his basement.

Chilly Willy, a 1950s cartoon character created by Walter Lantz's animation studio, spent most of his time trying to find food or stay warm alongside his sidekick dog, Smedley. Chilly Willy often was packaged with Lantz's more famous character, Woody Woodpecker.

Tennessee Tuxedo, star of a semieducational CBS cartoon in the mid-1960s, featured the distinctive voice of Don Adams. The show revolved around Tennessee Tuxedo and his walrus buddy, Chumley, both residents of Megalopolis Zoo. The two were in constant trouble with zookeeper Stanley Livingston and sought help from the wise professor Phineas J. Whoopee.

Burgess Meredith, who died in 1997, played the Penguin in the 1960s "Batman" television series and the 1966 movie. His character was known for his signature laugh and love of umbrellas. Danny DeVito reprised the role (though his Penguin was much darker) in the 1992 movie "Batman Returns."

Neurotic penguin Opus made his debut in the early 1980s in Berkeley Breathed's popular comic strip "Bloom County." The bird with the oversize beak now tickles the funny bone in "Opus." Look for a movie about this political penguin in 2008.

Mumble is the latest character to dance into the hearts of penguin lovers. The tone-deaf star of "Happy Feet" discovers he's a much better dancer than singer in a community where singing is valued above all else. By the end of the movie, he's taught his fellow birds a lesson about accepting differences (not to mention saved the species with his fancy footwork).

An expert weighs in

Celebrity zookeeper Jack Hanna knows a thing or two about penguins. The director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and host of the syndicated "Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures" has been to Antarctica twice to film the photogenic creatures, as well as many of their other native habitats.

Hanna has not seen "Happy Feet," but he was happy to talk about his flightless friends.

Q: Can penguins tap dance?

A: No, but they do have a walk that all of us love. They're very, very sturdy and have a lot of fat content. They're very compact and have those little short legs.

Q: Why are penguins so popular in pop culture right now?

A: The penguin looks like a toy. It's the tuxedo effect.

Q: What's something most people don't know about penguins?

A: They stink. The guano [bird droppings] on some of these ice floes is 100 years old. You just literally have to throw your clothes away when you get home. They just stink.

Q: Are penguins as warm and cuddly as they appear on the big screen?

A: They are not cuddly. They poke and they bite; they can put a dent in you. It's a wild animal.

Endangered species

Penguins, native to the Southern Hemisphere, are found in South America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica.

Only one of the 17 species of penguins, the Galapagos, is listed as endangered by the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The nonprofit Center of Biological Diversity, however, this month asked the U.S. government to add 12 more penguin species to the endangered list.

According to scientists, global warming is the biggest threat to penguins; increasing ocean temperatures have altered the swimming patterns of krill, a shrimplike animal that make up the bulk of most penguins' diet.

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