"Penguins of Madagascar: Get Ducky": No, Seriously, Don't
I wasn’t impressed with The Penguins of Madagascar when it first premiered, calling it “noisy, emphatic, and grim”. It would be nice to report that the show has improved on its debut by shaking off its dusty stereotypes, its unfunny bits of business, and its inability to turn the idea for a joke into an actual joke. But it hasn’t, not if the shorts collected by Penguins of Madagascar: Get Ducky are representative of the series’ recent performance.
So I don’t have anything to add to what I said about the premiere, except to grouchily suggest that the visuals have gotten a little cheaper. Textures, in particular, seem to have been toned down; I don’t remember a particular crocodile looking quite so much like he was covered with green-hued stained glass rather than scales.
Instead, let me try looking for the show’s positives.
I don’t know how popular Penguins is: how much respect it gets from seasoned viewers, or what its ratings are. But if it is popular among kids as more than just eye candy–a “name brand” entertainment to be watched because something needs watching–it’s probably because of the penguins and their ludicrously incongruous schtick.
If you haven’t seen the show, it’s about four penguins living in the Central Park Zoo, and who for some reason behave like members of some kind of commando force. Each has a single personality trait or role. Skipper is the leader, and talks like Charlton Heston at his hammiest. Kowalski is the Spock-like intellectual. Rico vomits up useful hardware. Private is the green one. Each episode cooks up some kind of miniature crisis that requires the penguins to flip and somersault and make karate gestures while talking in tough “military” jargon. In “Paternal Egg-stinct,” for instance, they have to babysit an orphaned egg that has mysteriously appeared in the zoo. In “Operation: Neighbor Swap” they move the park residents around to suit their own convenience. In “Sting Operation” they have to battle a nest of Russian-accented (?!) hornets that have moved in.
It’s not hard to see why the show would appeal to kids–especially boys–of a certain age. Children lead secret, self-dramatizing lives, often dreaming of adventure; these dreams fit ill within the usual, safely domesticated home scene. The penguins of Madagascar are deadly serious at what they do–that is supposed to be part of the comedy–but they recapitulate the play that kids between six and ten like so much. The would-be-commando duckling that causes so much trouble in “Hard Boiled Eggy” is exactly the kind of kid who would enjoy this show, ignoring its irrelevant defects because they love the exuberant acrobatics the penguins go through in order to adjust a thermostat. They’re the kind of kids who doodle Rube Goldberg machines in their notebooks during school hours, and invent elaborate rules and detours for getting from one place to another.
It’s this kind of narrow appeal that explains why Scooby Doo is so popular; both Penguins and the classic Hanna-Barbera series are animated daydreams about being able to get into and out of a certain kind of trouble. Scooby Doo does better, I think, because that’s all there is the to show: the meddling kids find a ghost, run from it, and then turn tables and catch it. There aren’t many other distractions, and what distractions there are occur during the moments when they’re running or hiding. In contrast, Penguins saddles itself with too many other things: plots and stories and side characters and “clever” dialogue for the adults. And too many of the action bits are only notional, with the penguins just flipping or diving or making snappy poses. There is nothing like the sensational Great Escape parody that The Simpsons did so many years ago in “A Streetcar Named Marge.” The dearth of such action bits compromises the show’s one real source of appeal.
Well, it’s probably too much to ask that an animated series come up with two large-scale, well-thought-out commando operations each week. It’s much easier to do what the producers of Penguins of Madagascar do: construct midget skeletons of tiresome sitcom situations, and flesh them out with unimaginative dialogue spoken in supposedly funny accents.
Other episodes on Penguins of Madagascar: Get Ducky include “April Fools”; “Siege the Day”; “Otter Gone Wild”; and “Two Feet High and Rising.” Extras include a preview of Puss in Boots, and assorted DVD ads and music videos.