Russell’s comments may have brought about the penguins, but he wasn’t the only person involved in their creation. The scene required lots of careful work — and I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge some of the incredible behind-the-scenes talent.
First off, animating the penguins themselves was no simple task. Frank Thomas, who was in charge of the scene’s animation, had planned out the penguins’ movements before Dick Van Dyke’s dance was filmed. However, when it came time to add the animation to the live-action footage, Thomas faced a major problem:
“As I get the film of Dick actually doing the dance, here’s his feet flying all around [and] stepping on my penguins. […] So I had them duck and I had them jump and I had them get out of the way any way they could.”
Now, I have to admit, the individual dance moves may have been frustrating to animate, but I really think they add to the scene’s charm. Since the penguins usually dance in unison, the little ducks and kicks add a bit of personality to each of them. Plus, it’s fun to pretend that the moves are born out of spontaneous, wholesome joy — almost as though the penguins are bursting with happiness.
Of course, even the very fact that Dick Van Dyke was able to dance with animated penguins was a marvel. Engineer Petro Vlahos deserves all the praise here: he created a one-of-a-kind camera that could essentially isolate a live-action background, then replace it with an animated image. (The camera was used in several other “Mary Poppins” scenes, too.)
Ultimately, the movie’s adorable penguins wouldn’t have existed without a lot of incredible talent — and, of course, Russell’s comments. Leave it to Disney to realize just how valuable a kid’s opinion could be.