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Book Review: The Art of Penguins of Madagascar

Fred Patten looks at Barbara Robertson’s coffee-table book showcasing the art of DreamWorks Animation’s latest penguin adventure film

The Art of Penguins of Madagascar, by Barbara Robertson.  Foreword by Tom McGrath.

San Rafael, CA, Insight Editions, November 2014, hardcover $45.00 (168 pages), Kindle $24.83.

Here is the usual lavish coffee-table art book of a lavish CGI animated feature; DreamWorks Animation’s 92-minute Penguins of Madagascar, released on November 26, 2014.

In this case, I can’t say “hit movie” due to all the publicity about its underperforming and the resulting financial trouble that it has caused DreamWorks.  Also, frankly, I’m considerably disappointed in its story, although there is much to like in the feature.  Skipper, Kowalski, Rico, and Private, the four Penguins, are fine as zany, out-of-control supporting characters in the three Madagascar movies.  Presented as deliberate freelance amateur international secret agents all along, they simply aren’t convincing.  (“Secret agents” for whom?)  Their pre-climax moment of pathos, when the Penguins are forced to compare themselves to the professional secret-agent North Wind team, may be intended to give them some character depth, but it is even less convincing.  And their temporary conversion into monsters at the climax follows much too closely upon the similar climax in Universal/Illumination’s Despicable Me 2.  While animation experts may know intellectually that Penguins of Madagascar was in production for so long that this climax had to have been planned before Despicable Me 2 came out, the two climaxes are far too much alike.

These are criticisms of the movie.  They are not reflected in The Art of Penguins of Madagascar.  The movie is an excellent example of CGI animation, and this book reflects this.

The 168-page book is divided into three main sections.  “The Elitist of the Elite” focuses upon the Penguins.  “Spy Masters” is devoted to their rivals, the North Wind team.  And “The Villain” presents “Dave’s World”: their nemesis, in his human guise as Dr. Octavius Brine, and in his true identity as the fiendishly grinning octopus Dave.

Each section explains the difficulties that the production crew faced.  “The Penguins had to stay familiar, but they couldn’t remain the same.  DreamWorks Animation chief creative officer Bill Damaschke explains, ‘Essentially, they are the same characters they always were, but by moving the spotlight over to focus on them, we’ve found all their dimensions.  We’ve filled out their characters and the brotherly relationship they have with each other.’” (p. 18)   “‘We didn’t want the Penguins to be like the Three Stooges,’ says co-producer Tripp Hudson.  ‘They’re more sophisticated then that; they’re resourceful spies with a sense of humor.’”  They were required to expand from one-dimensional comic supporting characters into starring characters with distinct personalities.

To make the movie more than a simple heroes-vs.-the-villain confrontation, the Penguins were given a good-guy rival to complicate matters; the North Wind team of professional animal secret agents.  It made sense that a world-threatening menace would have the world’s top secret agents assigned to take him down.  The problem was to craft an explanation as to why this job had to be taken from the pros and turned over to crazy amateurs like the Penguins.  The Penguins all came from the South Pole, so their rivals were also made polar animals, but from the opposite North Pole:  Classified, the arctic wolf; Eva, the snowy owl; Corporal, the polar bear; and Short Fuse, the baby seal.  Each has his or her own specialty.

Of course, the villain had to be the most complex character of all.  “And what better villain for a spy movie?  ‘The octopus is such a bizarre animal,’ says director Eric Darnell.  ‘They are masters of disguise and really intelligent, and people think they are creepy.  The octopus is a villain we really haven’t seen in a film before.’” (p. 110) Once an octopus was decided upon, the production crew had to give him a look, a personality, and a motivation for wanting to conquer the world – or, in this case, for hating and wanting to destroy all penguins.

As usual with these coffee-table art books, there is a plethora of artwork:  the characters, including unused preliminary designs; their accouterments and vehicles; and settings including much background art.  ‘‘For Antarctica, we created a few prototype penguins and from those made subtle variations.  It helped that penguins look similar.’ –Philippe Gluckman, visual effects supervisor” (p. 33)  “‘We ended up with hundreds of brilliant and crazy ideas for the mutant penguins – more than we could ever fit on screen.  The ones that made us laugh the loudest were the ones that made it in.’ –Lara Breay, producer” (p. 27)  “‘Everyone thought we were crazy to take on the challenge of creating and animating an octopus, but it was a really rewarding process that gave us a really fun and interesting character.’ –Shannon Jeffries, production designer” (p. 119)  Each sketch, drawing, piece of concept art, and painting is credited to its artist:  Win Arayaphong, Jamaal Bradley, Chris Brock, Richard Daskas, Natalie Franscioni-Karp, Goro Fujita, Avner Geller, Robin Joseph, Ravi Kamble, Craig Kellman, Todd Kurosawa, Bryan Lashelle, Carlos Felipe León, Stevie Lewis, Floriane Marchix, Joe Moshier, Ruben Perez, Frederic Stewart, Priscilla Wong, and many others.  Some of the settings, such as the detailed evidence room in the North Wind’s headquarters, will enable the reader to take a close look at something that may have flashed by in the movie.

If you loved the look of Penguins of Madagascar, and do not want to be distracted by the overly silly parody of the secret-agent stereotypical plot, don’t miss The Art of Penguins of Madagascar.

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net (link sends e-mail).

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