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.


Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was