Penguins in Pop Culture

Pop culture is riddled with penguins. Those plucky little southern hemisphere flightless birds have been referenced everywhere from films to corporate branding, as they are cute enough to appeal to children and adults alike, and are also sociable creatures with a community spirit, which appeals to the sort of people who choose corporate logos.

Penguin Books is one of the world’s most recognisable publishing imprints, and has been producing affordable paperback books around the world for decades. The penguin mascot also appeared in Family Guy as the sleazy boss of the publishing company.

The umbrella-wielding Penguin himself, Oswald Cobblepot is one of Batman’s most enduring and recognisable enemies in comic books, TV adaptations and perhaps most memorably in Batman Returns, where Danny DeVito played the career criminal as an animalistic deformed creature with a giant duckmobile. Batman Returns also featured an army of penguins, consisting of a clever blend of actors in penguin costumes, animatronic prop penguins and real live birds.

To linger on comic book depictions of penguins, Doctor Who’s long-running comic strip became an unlikely champion for the birds in the 1980s. During Colin Baker’s brief tenure as the Doctor between 1984 and 1986, he was accompanied on his adventures by a wise-cracking shape-changing alien called Frobisher, a Whifferdill. In his second story Frobisher took on the form of an emperor penguin and, occasional plot expediency aside, remained in that shape throughout his run. He declared he was sticking with the penguin shape ‘for personal reasons’, and refused to elaborate. Frobisher has been a consistent fan favourite, even supported by Doctor Who’s TV producer at the time, John Nathan-Turner.

Elsewhere in TV land, the bizarre Eastern European animation show Pingu featured a family of penguins gibbering at each other. Remembered mostly for the fact that in one episode, a baby penguin did a wee on the floor of the igloo.

Cinematic penguins have gone beyond Batman Returns, with recent forays into pop culture with documentaries like March of the Penguins, and animated films including Happy Feet and Surf’s Up, both starring penguins with unlikely hobbies. The BBC also produced a brilliant April Fool gag when they created a spoof documentary where former Python Terry Jones narrated the migration of flying penguins to South America.

Oscar-winning animator Nick Park immortalised a new penguin pop culture icon in the form of Feathers McGraw, a cute little penguin who comes between inventor Wallace and his long-suffering dog Gromit. Feathers, with his cunning rooster disguise (a rubber glove fixed to the top of his head), stole Wallace’s patented Techno-Trousers in order to steal a fabulous diamond, and all without saying a single word.

On the digital front, many computer game penguins have appeared over the years, often as incidental characters. An old favourite for internet gamers, however, are the chirpy penguins of the Yetisports games. As Yeti clubs, hurls and generally slings around penguins, they squeal with bizarre delight, often before hurtling face first into an icy cliff face or a snowdrift. Penguins were also the stars of one of the internet’s first viral clips – you know, the one where a waddling penguin casually cuffs one of his avian buddies through a hole in the ice.

Most UK children will also react well to the slogan ‘P p p pick up a Penguin’. Penguin bars were individually wrapped biscuit based chocolate bars that were a firm favourite in lunchboxes. They are now almost impossible to find in shops, but were the perfect school snack for generations of British children.

Penguins are everywhere in pop culture, from computer games to films to comic books to corporate logos. Even a popular science book for children recently took the title ‘Why don’t penguins feet freeze?’ Despite inhabiting some of the most remote inhospitable terrains on the planet, penguins are among the most popular members of the animal kingdom.