Penguins of Madagascar

Posted on November 25, 2014 at 5:17 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: All Ages
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 26, 2014
Date Released to DVD: March 16, 2015 ASIN: B00SK573RU

The most adorable characters from the first three animated “Madagascar” movies were the penguins, the seldom right but never in doubt leader Skipper (Tom McGrath), the often right but never listened to Kowalski (Chris Miller), the literally explosive Rico (Conrad Vernon), and the ever-loyal Private (Christopher Knights). They spun off into their own television series and now they star in their first feature film, a sublimely silly spy farce that has them globe-hopping through exotic locations with a cosmopolitan spy (Benedict Cumberbatch) in pursuit of a dastardly villain known as Dr. Octavious Brine, aka Dave (John Malkovich). It is one of the best family films of the year.

Copyright DreamWorks 2014
Copyright DreamWorks 2014

First, we get the origin story, hilariously narrated in the inimitable voice of director/documentarian Werner Herzog. It is Antarctica, and a film crew led by a cartoon Herzog (who did make a movie in Antarctica, “Encounters at the End of the World”) is there to shoot the march of the penguins. But Skipper, Kowalski, and Rico step out of line to rescue an egg that is rolling away, and the decision to think for themselves and to opt for adventure and loyalty to the team over tradition and instinct — plus a more-than-healthy dose of boundless confidence and optimism soon has them floating away from the frozen South Pole and on their way to uncharted lands, or lands uncharted by any penguins anyway. The egg they have saved finally hatches, and while they are a bit distressed to find that the miracle of birth is messier than they thought, they are charmed by the tiny hatchling and especially by the way they imprint on him as the only family he has ever known.

We next see the penguins years later, following the events of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. They are on a mission to break into that most impenetrable of fortresses, Fort Knox, repository of the US Government’s store of gold. But their goal is not what we might think. And the outcome is not what they expect. They are kidnapped by an enormous purple octopus, brilliantly animated, with every tentacle and crooked tooth creating comic menace. His human identity is Dr. Octavius Brine, well-known geneticist, aficionado of fine cheeses, and regular contributor to NPR pledge drives. But inside that lab coat is his real persona, the evil purple octopus named…Dave.

Yeah, I know, not too scary, right? And that is just one of the immense frustrations Dave has to confront, which is why he has created the green, ominously glowing Medusa serum. No one knows what it does, but it looks pretty evil.

It turns out someone has been tracking Dr. Brine. An international organization of crack spies called the North Wind, led by a wolf so deep undercover his name is classified (so the Penguins call him Classified) is trying to find him. The North Wind and the penguins stop in Venice, Rio, Shanghai (which the penguins think is Ireland) and other world capitals, sometimes working together, sometimes trying to beat each other to Dave and the Medusa serum. It turns out that Dave’s motive is one that will ring very true to kids, especially those with adorable younger siblings.

But of course, all of this is just an excuse for a never-ending stream of jokes. My favorite is Dave’s disastrously non-threatening Skype call as he tries to figure out how to transmit sound and picture at the same time. “It’s like trying to call my parents,” Classified says impatiently. The break-in at Fort Knox is very funny as the penguins roll over to camouflage themselves on a black and white striped floor. And a running joke featuring puns on celebrity names is delivered with such understated dry humor that it never loses its charm. If, as they say in the theater, dying is easy but comedy is hard, silly comedy may be the hardest of all, but here it is done to perfection, one more item to add to the thanks list on this holiday weekend.

Parents should know that this film has brief potty humor, and some comic peril and action (no one hurt).

Family discussion: Why was Dave so jealous of the penguins? Why didn’t Classified want the penguins to help him?

If you like this, try: “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” and the television series “The Penguins of Madagascar”

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Contest: Tickets to a DC Screening of “Penguins of Madagascar” on November 22, 2014

Posted on November 14, 2014 at 7:38 pm

Copyright 2014 DreamWorks Animation
Copyright 2014 DreamWorks Animation

I’m delighted to be able to offer a limited number of FREE TICKETS to a pre-release screening of “Penguins of Madagascar” in Washington DC on Saturday morning, November 22, 2014. To win a pair of tickets, follow this link to Gofobo, which has all the information you will need. REMINDER: Get there early. Free tickets do not guarantee seats and all seating is first come, first served. Hope to see you there!

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Comic-Con 2014: Day One

Posted on July 25, 2014 at 11:08 am

copyright Nell Minow 2014
copyright Nell Minow 2014

Here’s what’s at Comic-Con, which means here’s what’s coming everywhere else: affordable 3D printers with hand-held scanners that transmit 360 degree images to your tablet or laptop instantly. GoPro cameras. Google glasses. Even Oculus Rift, the totally immersive virtual reality headset invented by a teenager and sold for $2 billion that is said to be a literal game-changer (its first commercial use will be in gaming) and could change everything from movies and television to medical imaging.

And, once again, even more fan involvement in everything, the line between creator and consumer of content almost dissolving completely. When you have your photo taken with an alien chasing you, you don’t just get a print-out. You are directed to a console so you can post it to all of your social media. The new Ships of the Line Star Trek calendar will have fan art as well as the official renderings. And the new USA television miniseries from “Heroes” helmer Tim Kring, “Dig,” starring Jason Isaacs, has a virtual scavenger hunt set up at Comic-Con. If you discover the rune-like symbol they have hidden all over the area, you post a photo to Snapchat with their hashtag, you can win a chance to chat with someone from the show.  And you can see prequel footage and engage with the writers via Wattpad.

I attended a press event featuring the people behind the new “Madagascar” animated series spin-off, “Penguins of Madagascar,” including writers/directors Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith (reuniting for the first time since “Antz”), Tom McGrath (director of the earlier films and voice of Skipper) and John Malkovich, who provides the voice of the villain, an evil octopus.  The film also features Benedict Cumberbatch as a dashing, James Bond-style secret agent.  It takes place just after the end of the last film (not the television series), as the penguins need some rest after the excitement of the circus adventure.  “What starts as a birthday romp turns into a world tour.”  Like the Bond films, they wanted to have a series of exciting locations.

McGrath says he always envisioned Robert Stack as the voice of Skipper, and tries to channel him when he performs the part.  I asked Malkovich what was fun about playing a bad guy.  He said that “this one is quite fun because he seems happy, he’s lazy, not particularly profound or remorseful, and that’s always a pleasure.”

“Dig” looks very impressive, and the chase scenes they showed us from the first episode really highlighted the locations in Jerusalem.  (They will continue filming in New Mexico.)  Isaac said he took the part because “I get to run around and pretend to be cooler, tougher, sexier, and smarter than I am.”  Anne Heche plays his boss (and sometimes more).  “We wanted to make it cinematic, multi-layered, epic,” said the cinematographer.  They used a 90-year-old lens to “embrace the golden light” in Jerusalem, and an up-to-the-minute lens for the “calmer, cooler, beautifully crisp” light of Norway to achieve the maximum contrast.  Because it is a limited “event” series, they know where it is going to end from the beginning, no “art of the stall.”  They warned us that no one in the series is what he or she seems and that we should “look out for the color red,” which is almost another character in the story.

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