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He could be a small child, a house plant, maybe even you or me! Is he you, Kowalski?

Movie

Penguins of Madagascar
(2014)

 

You’d think DreamWorks would have realised they can rely on formulaic animated sequels for only so long before they have to come up with something new, but no. Instead, their approach of milking properties until they run dry, and then milking them some more, has blighted other studios’ approach (Pixar is spinning off sequels to pretty much anything that can carry them, Universal has Despicable Me, Fox/Blue Sky is looking forward to Ice Age 11). There’s surely a point when even “indiscriminating” kids are going to realise they’re being had, though. DreamWorks probably thought they had an easy win here, depositing their popular penguins in their own spin-off vehicle. And just to prove their thinking wasn’t necessarily wrong, Universal did exactly the same thing to the tune of a $1bn worldwide gross with Minions this year. So what went wrong? A dearth of anything innovative.

Of course, these things are relative. While Penguins’ stateside haul was of underwhelming Turbo proportions, it still made nearly $400m worldwide, putting it above recent (relative) fizzlers like Rise of the GuardiansMegamindTurbo and Mr. Peabody and Sherman. Lest that be put down to “undiscerning” international audiences, this year’s Home was notably not met with the same enthusiasm; seen as a US hit, it only doubled that sum worldwide, rather than the two or threefold studios are accustomed to with animations. Thus, they failed to come in much higher than Penguins.

All told, things aren’t looking so hot for the animation house right now, and they’re hoping Kung Fu Panda and The Croods sequels will do the business. Trolls – they’ll be looking for a Smurfs-esque audience tie-in there – and Boss Baby aren’t sure things. Their B.O.O. Bureau of Otherworldy Operations is off the schedule so maybe the retooling is currently in the realm of “unsalvageable”, while Puss in Boots and Madagascar have second and fourth instalments planned.

I’m generally quite forgiving of DreamWorks fare, though, increasingly so now Pixar is happy to turn out dreck like Cars. I’d rather watch speedy snail Turbo any day than Lightning McQueen. And the first half hour of Madagascar 3 is up there with the best CG animation has delivered. Then there’s How to Train Your Dragon 2, proof that sequels don’t have to be bereft of engaging and resonant content. Sadly, though, Penguins is just plain lazy, from conception through to its attempts to jiggery poke the finely tuned mission microcapsules Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private engineered in in the Madagascars.

Eric Darnell, co-overseer of all three Madagascar movies, must share some of the blame as co-director (the other being Simon J Smith of Bee Movie) for not recognising this wasn’t up to snuff.  The rest goes to the five writers, who failed to come up with anything remotely suited to the quartet’s particular appeal. Two of them, Alan Schoolcraft, and Brent Simons, worked on Megamind, the substandard superhero affiliations of which this reminded me most (that and the hard done by super villain of The Incredibles). That sub-genre is currently over stuffed, with Despicable Me also vying for that super hero/villain crown. Unless the conceit is distinct, such fare just won’t stand out from the crowd. Feeble Machiavellian octopus Dave (John Malkovich), who presents himself as human and has a serum to mutate penguins – which he doesn’t like as he feels shunned because the foursome were so popular back in the zoo and stole the limelight from him –  is as bland a villain as they get.

Added to the mix, there’s a gang of superspy animals, the North Wind, out to stop Dave and butting heads with the penguins. They consist of a wolf (Classified, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who surely got paid well but could have been anyone doing it really), a seal, a polar ear and an owl (which Kowalski falls for). Again, it’s not that this sort of thing can’t be plundered for laughs, but everyone is doing it at the moment, and what we get is moribund.

There was more potential early on, when it looked like the penguins were robbing Fort Knox. Unfortunately, they were just after some hard-to-get Cheezy Dibbles snack food. Committing felonies seems much more the sort of thing these can-do guys should be doing, rather than being turned into mutant penguins or a parent-child relationship being fostered between Skipper and Private. That’s the danger of a spin-off; you end up softening characters that were appealing for their lack of moral compass (if the lemurs had their own movie, you can bet King Louis – here not voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen – would have a heart of gold).

The best moment of black comedy, the kind of thing Darnell and Smith should have been indulging, comes in the prologue, as the young penguins (there’s always a flashback with these things, naturally) are intentionally knocked off an ice cliff by a documentary film crew (lead by the voice of Werner Herzog!) in order to get some prize footage. Following this, the madcap adventuring turns decidedly pedestrian, including poo (courtesy of a chemical toilet) and Kevin Bacon gags (“Kevin, bake on”) and Planet of the Apes references that also reference Madagascar by virtue of it including Planet of the Apes references (“You maniac, you blew him up”).

Is anyone going to care about Kung Fu Panda 3, arriving in January? Its last instalment experienced diminishing returns (it made a bit more than the original, but was creatively bankrupt) and there have been rumours of production problems. For sake of DreamWorks stocks, they’d better hope it isn’t another Penguins of Madagascar.

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