Skip to main content

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

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 Guardians, Megamind, Turbo 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.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…