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

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Archimedes would split himself with envy.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (SPOILERS) Generally, this seems to be the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad outing that gets the short straw in the appreciation stakes. Which is rather unfair. True, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger lacks Tom Baker and his rich brown voice personifying evil incarnate – although Margaret Whiting more than holds her own in the wickedness stakes – and the structure follows the Harryhausen template perhaps over scrupulously (Beverly Cross previously collaborated with the stop-motion auteur on Jason and the Argonauts , and would again subsequently with Clash of the Titans ). But the storytelling is swift and sprightly, and the animation itself scores, achieving a degree of interaction frequently more proficient than its more lavishly praised peer group.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.