Penguins in Pop Culture

Penguins have been trending over the past decade, and much of their popularity can be attributed to the film industry, and marketing executives with a keen business sense. Many of these popular penguin films have hatched other hot commodities such as CDs, games, toys, clothing and accessories. The fast food industry has also climbed aboard the bandwagon, offering toys and prizes in their kid’s meals featuring penguins. One may argue that “pop culture” isn’t exactly about culture at all. In fact, one might conclude that pop culture is more about commerce than anything else. The appeal of this adorable, odd and phenomenal bird is something that everyone can appreciate. The profits pulled in from this popular bird are formidable. Let’s take a look at recent influences to explore the impact of penguin popularity in our culture.

Penguins on the Big Screen


In terms of animated films, Hollywood has discovered a profitable method for making money. The method includes taking a script (not necessarily a strong one), adding exceptional animation and good music, and including the voices of highly popular actors such as Chris Rock or Ben Stiller.

In the movie Madagascar, the penguin appeal takes shape when penguins act as accomplices in a plot of animal escape from the New York Central Zoo. This movie, released in 2005 set the stage for additional animated films featuring highly lovable animal characters.

Happy Feet

Happy Feet was released in 2006 and won the prestigious Academy Award for Best Animated Film. Music from the film included many songs and arrangements, and the movie soundtrack was a popular CD for young and old alike. “The Song of the Heart” captured a Golden Globe for Best Original Song from the movie’s soundtrack. Available now on DVD and Blu-Ray disk, the movie grossed $198 million dollars and was ranked #7 for highest U.S. domestic grossing films of 2006. The movie featured the voices of Hollywood’s finest actors including Elijah Wood, Nicole Kidman, and Robin Williams. Who could resist the antics of Mumble, the tap-dancing penguin who just wanted to belong and find true love?

Surf’s Up

Piggy-backing on the Happy Feet mega-success, came the 2007 release of Surf’s Up. This movie also brought star power to the screen with the voices of Jeff Bridges, Shia LaBeouf and Jon Heder. If moviegoers could adore tap-dancing penguins, they would surely embrace surfing penguins. Once again, Hollywood got it right. This film eventually grossed over $149 million dollars worldwide.

March of the Penguins

This endearing movie featured real film footage of penguins in their natural habitat and was richly narrated by Morgan Freeman. Absorbing and educational, this film took an in-depth look at the emperor penguins and their annual march to natural breeding grounds. This movie treats viewers to a story of love, courage, and perseverance. It opens the eyes of those who may have forgotten that the world we share is very large, and we can learn many lessons from nature itself.

Retailers with a Feather Fancy

As Hollywood raked in the profits with ticket sales, companies joined in the frenzy for all things featuring penguins. Burger King featured Happy Feet prizes in their 2006 Kids Club meals, and a whole slew of trick-or-treaters that year were dressed up as penguins. Let’s not forget the multitude of children that celebrated birthdays with Madagascar, Happy Feet, or Surf’s Up themed parties.  Department stores such as Kohl’s teamed up with DreamWorks films to feature exclusive plush toys of animals from the movie Madagascar, as well as story books and other merchandise. Other retailers took advantage of such appeal. Build-a-Bear-Workshops for example, offered plush Mumble, Cody and Maverick penguin toys for children to design, assemble, dress and take home. Such merchandise triggered more production of consumer products such as book bags, lunchboxes, jewelry, apparel, video games and more. Stores such as Claire’s Boutique continually feature an array of penguin-themed jewelry and accessories. Many of the animated films spurned the release of video and computer games for the PlayStation 2, GameCube, Nintendo DS, Wii and more.

Club Penguin has become a highly popular website targeted for children ages 6 – 14. On any given day, tens of thousands of youngsters, tweens and teens flock to this website and explore a virtual world filled with games, activities and the chance to socialize with other penguins. Many of the activities are free to play, but most kids desire membership which will enable them to explore more areas of the website. A Club Penguin membership will set a family back approximately $5.95/month. Club Penguin is now owned by Disney, and since 2008 an array of plush toys, games, puzzles and other merchandise can be purchased on Disney’s online store and in retail outlets.

It is clear that the surge in popularity of penguin-related merchandise has been in full force over the past decade, with children and tweens being a huge target market.

The Trend Continues

Consumers can be prepared to see another surge of penguin-related merchandise released soon. The 1938 children’s book, Mr. Popper’s Penguins has been made into a movie featuring the talented Jim Carrey. This movie will certainly fuel more interest in penguin-related merchandise of all types. In addition, Happy Feet 2 is set to release in November of 2011. This means that holiday shoppers will have a formidable selection of penguin paraphernalia to choose from later this year.

Is there any chance that our fascination with penguins will begin to dwindle? Not likely. As long as profits continue from the films, websites and merchandise that feature this appealing creature will maintain their popularity in our culture. It truly is as simple as that. For profits and penguins, it’s not so much about pop culture; it’s more about making money. And that’s fairly black and white.


Worldwide Box Office