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"Penguins of Madagascar": Black and White and Blushing With Shame All Over

by on March 27, 2009

The Penguins of Madagascar, DreamWorks Animation’s new CG-animated series for Nickelodeon, is like half of one of their animated features: a conventional, “irreverent” knockabout comedy that’s been shorn of the pathos and “character arcs” that usually burden their movies. In this regard, at least, you can say that it is only half as repulsive as it could have been.

I will say this in the show’s favor: It is quite handsome and not entirely devoid of entertainment. Either DreamWorks has emptied its bank accounts to give this series a nearly feature-quality sheen, or the studio has found cunning ways to lower its costs without sacrificing polished surfaces. If it weren’t for the shortened running times and the rounded-out stories, you might swear that you were watching segments lifted from one of their features. Penguins, blessedly, is free of the awkward movements and the floating expressions that sometimes mar films like Space Chimps, and the characters have a reassuring sense of solidity. It wouldn’t look primitive or low-budget if set beside Toy Story or other early Pixar features. (Its relative poverty of wit and imagination is another matter.) Certainly, no one can accuse DreamWorks or Nickelodeon of stinting on the production expenses.

The stories are also fleet and executed with vigor; if you don’t like a situation or if you find a joke unfunny, you don’t have to wait long for another one to show up. Action and chase scenes are dynamic, with lots of character movement, fluid camera work, and quick cutting from lots of different angles. Here, again, Penguins holds up well when compared to feature films with presumably larger budgets.

The series, as you can guess, is set in the same zoo and stars the same quartet of penguins as were featured in Madagascar. Life for them seems to consist mostly of faux-commando work, even if such work doesn’t take them far from the zoo’s confines. Conflict, such as it is, mostly comes courtesy of King Julien, the ring-tailed lemur, and his entourage, who are now living next door to the penguins in the zoo. Each episode is divided into two stories. In “Launchtime” / “Haunted Habitat”, the penguins spend the former trying to escape King Julien’s house-crashing ways by taking a rocket to the moon, only to wind up on the rooftop of a nearby brownstone; in the latter, they help one of their neighbors investigate some spooky noises. In “Operation: Plush & Cover” / “Happy King Julien Day!” the penguins have to rescue Mort (King Julien’s giggling, infantile hanger-on) from a factory when he is accidentally returned in a box of plushies intended for destruction; and they are bribed by the promise of candy into attending a party in King Julien’s honor.

Thankfully, none of these stories is particularly plot heavy, and are mostly just excuses for some supposedly funny physical antics and some putatively funny dialogue. I say “supposedly” and “putatively” because there wasn’t a single line or gag in these four episodes that made me even smile. In fact, if it weren’t for the actors’ deliveries, I’m not sure I’d even have recognized that they were meant to be humorous. The characters talk like smart-alecks and they act like smart-alecks, but there’s nothing smart in what they say, and their wisecracks and comebacks are at the schoolyard, “That’s what you think” level. Story-wise, they feature hardly any invention.

You can sense just how woeful the series is if you compare “Launchtime” to the superficially similar Wallace and Gromit short “A Grand Day Out.” Both are about characters trying to escape to the moon; both are about the unexpected things they find when they arrive. In “A Grand Day Out,” delicate character animation and an off-kilter eccentricity result in a one-of-a-kind short in which small surprises and unexpected twists build on each other to an unexpected conclusion. In “Launchtime,” the penguins’ flight unites them with a luckless mongrel cat whose dinner plans begin and quickly end with him trying to trick them into stepping into his microwave. That’s the kind of idea that might be developed into a series of strong gags; in “Launchtime,” though, that’s all you get: the idea.

And that’s the basic problem with The Penguins of Madagascar (or, at least, with the two episodes handed out for advance review). It’s very much a written show, and one that has not been written out as more than a series of notions. There are ideas for humor: “Oxygen content surprisingly high,” one of the characters murmurs as he examines the “moonscape.” “Cheese levels surprisingly low.” But that’s not a joke, and because the speaker is serious it’s not a (lame) witticism either. It’s just a reference to a hoary old superstition about the moon. Even at the plot level, the stories feel like outlines with blank bits that haven’t been filled in. In “Haunted Habitat,” the spooky noises are traced to a storm sewer; I’ll give you one guess as to what kind of creature they find down there. And once they reach that point, the producers can’t do anything except saddle the discovered creature with the voice of Richard Kind doing his patented “nebbishy New Yorker” character.

The same kind of thing goes for the physical humor, which has no twinkle or pacing or rhythm. When King Julien does a pratfall, it feels exactly as though a scriptwriter has simply typed “King Julien does a pratfall” into his word processor, and then passed the script on to an animator who will then plug the “pratfall” algorithm into the computer. The show uses wild expressions and body splats as exclamation points, not because these things are or can be beautiful and funny in their own right. The results are noisy, emphatic, and grim.

Despite its sheen and expense, there’s not a lot a difference between The Penguins of Madagascar and some of the stuff Hanna-Barbera used to churn out in the dark days of the 1970s. In both there is the sense that creative elements have simply been dumped onto a conveyor belt to be stamped and shaved and packaged without any kind of plan or thinking that could shape each short into an organic whole: flaws in the writing are baked into the vocal tracks and then petrified in the animation process. The show’s polish and energy are such that a conscious attempt to improve the scripts would probably raise it to the status of a moderately funny animated sitcom. But the kind of subtlety that distinguishes Penguins from (let us say) a Backkom short is not something that can be captured by a guy tapping away at his keyboard.

But what’s the point of complaining? The thing has a brand name, it looks good, and there’s nothing else on TV that is appreciably better. The Penguins of Madagascar will be a monster hit, and no one at DreamWorks will care—if they even notice—how much better it could be.

The Penguins of Madagascar will premiere on Nickelodeon on Saturday, March 28, at 9:30pm (ET/PT). It will begin airing in its regular 10:00am (ET/PT) timeslot on Saturday, April 4.

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