PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR Comic-Con Panel Recap: A Great DreamWorks Animated Film Might Be on the Way

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Following the panel for Home, DreamWorks Animation moved to Penguins of Madagascar.  In the upcoming spinoff, the scene-stealing penguins take the lead, and are joined by a wolf named Classified (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) and his covert team of protective animals as they try to stop Dave (John Malkovich), a malevolent octopus.  Even though I’ve never been much for the Madagascar movies, the Penguins have always been wonderful, and I was interested to see if they could carry their own movie.  Judging by what they showed us today, they could have one of the funniest films of the year.

Hit the jump for my Penguins of Madagascar Comic-Con panel recap.

They started off with the teaser trailer, which you can watch below:

Panel Highlights:

Moderator Craig Ferguson brought on Directors Simon J. Smith, and Eric Darnell, and the voice of Skipper, Tom McGrath.

  • Smith says they’re about 70% finished with the movie.
  • McGrath says the Penguins almost got cut from the first movie because they were only in one scene, but then they got more screen time, expanded roles, to three movies, video games, and 80 episodes of a TV series.
  • McGrath originally wanted Robert Stack (Airplane!) to voice Skipper, but he passed away before animation started, so McGrath, who directed the Madagascar movies, took the job.
  • John Malkovich joins the directors and McGrath on stage, and said he was presented with the offer 3 ½ years ago, and he thought it was a funny idea to have his voice be the voice of an octopus.  “It seemed like such a no-brainer.”
  • Dave harbors a grudge against the Penguins because every time he was in a zoo, aquatic park, etc., the Penguins would steal his thunder because they were cute.
  • Unsurprisingly, when Cumberbatch took the stage, the crowd went nuts.
  • Says character is an “all-action wolf” and the North Wind look after animal welfare everywhere.  He recruits the penguins to try so they can get the intel they have.  He underestimates the penguins and overestimates his own team.
  • “The first time I met John was yesterday,” says Cumberbach.  “And the first question I asked this legend of acting was ‘What was it like to play an octopus?’”
  • Smith says that it’s tough to get everyone together at the same time because it’s a matter of scheduling.

Audience Q&A

  • the-penguins-of-madagascar-posterWhen asked how he prepared for the role, Cumberbatch said, “You have to go undercover for a long time.  I had to work as a wolf in Yellowstone for a month.”  He added he had to established he was the alpha, and later realized two of the other wolves were Christian Bale and Daniel Day-Lewis.  “Eating habits are a little bit awkward.”  But jokes aside, he says it takes a bit of a leap doing voice acting when there’s nothing physical to play off of.
  • Cumberbatch said he was attracted to the Bond-pastiche, but that it’s only skin-deep, “so there’s a nice vulnerability” to it, and the character eventually has to adapt to the Penguins’ free-wheeling style.  He was also attracted to DreamWorks Animation because their films make kids laugh.  And also that the Penguins are just “winning characters.”
  • On works that influenced them as kids: McGrath was influenced by Star Trek, S.W.A.T., A-Team, and the Penguins are a bit of an amalgam—the underdog group that sees nothing as impossible.  And then they can be plugged into Stalag 17 or The Dirty Dozen like adventures.  Malkovich’s childhood influences were “eclectic”, and he liked a “But only if they starred Hayley Mills.”  He also says he was a big fan of Leave It to Beaver.   Cumberbatch says it was The Hobbit because it was the first book his dad ever read to him.  And it also sparked his interest in the written word.  Cumberbatch also names TV shows he was a fan of including A-Team, Gentle Ben, and Manimal.  Yes.  Benedict Cumberbatch watched Manimal.
  • Cumberbatch says his radio work and audio books have helped for this movie, especially audiobooks because you have to do all the voices and imagine all the locations.  Animation is still a leap, but there’s plenty of support.
  • Cumberbatch and Malkovich haven’t done any recording sessions with other actors, and Cumberbtched noted that you don’t build the same camaraderie that comes with live-action work.
  • When asked about the difference between playing movies that are Rated-R as opposed to PG. “I think one is happier, in adult movies,” quips Malkovich.  Then he says he doesn’t really understand the ratings system, and points out the common complaint that violence is okay but anything sexual is verboten.
  • Smith, Darnell, and McGrath say that Penguins of Madagascar exists in the world of the films and is a sequel to Madagascar 3.  The TV series is “an alternate reality.”
  • What classic comic book hero would Malkovich and Cumberbatch like to play if they could?  “Lois Lane?” says Malkovich.  “Nurse Normal? Anyone?” says Cumberbatch.  “Doctor Strange joke,” he mutters.  And then says “Batman, I guess, yeah.”

The Footage

penguins-of-madagascar-logoThey brought about twenty minutes of footage (which is surprising since that’s about 1/5th of the movie) divided into four scenes.

  • Rough assembly of the first 6 minutes:  You know an animated family movie is off to a promising start when it opens with a Werner Herzog joke.  From the start it looks like the movie is going to happily embrace its weirdness while not forgetting about the characters.  The opening six minutes functions as backstory as we see Skipper, Kowalski (Chris Miller), and Rico (John DiMaggio) as little penguins who are already outsiders.  They don’t understand why the rest of the penguins are marching in a straight line.  When an egg goes rolling by and none of the other penguins do anything to help because that would involve breaking the line, Skipper, Kowalski, and Rico try to save the egg.  It’s an action-oriented scene as the egg bounces around, but it’s tinged with all the weird character touches as the group manages to turn their foolish bravado into sparkling success again and again.  When they do save the egg, it hatches and turns out to be (unsurprisingly) Private.  The group is now on an iceberg, unable to get back to the other penguins, and have “a 95% chance of death,” according to Kowalski.
  • The rough assembly came last in the presentation.  The first thing they showed us was a scene where the team is celebrating Private’s birthday by breaking into Fort Knox (an idea that’s more fun for Skipper than it is for Private).  After some clever maneuvers to break in (especially one involving a crosswalk), the Penguins get in to the room filled with gold bullion, but they’re more interested in what’s at the break room down the hall: a vending machine full of the delicious, FDA-banned junk food, Cheezy Dibbles.  But as Private tries to get a packet, a tentacle grabs him into the machine along with the other Penguins.
  • The next scene shows the team in a villainous lair.  They’re talking with the disturbingly flexible Dr. Octavius Brine, who keeps intoning that he knows the Penguins, but they have no idea who he is.  Eventually, Brine rips off his human costume to reveal that he’s Dave, an octopus.  Having shed his disguise, he expects the Penguins to recognize him, but they’re still at a loss.  Then they just decide to politely and cautiously pretend that they now know who he is.  The scene just gets more comically awkward as it goes along.
  • The third scene had the team escaping from Dave and being chased through the canals and streets of Venice by Dave’s octopi henchmen.  Of what we were shown, it was my least favorite.  It’s still kind of clever in how the penguins and the octopi fight and steer gondolas, but almost every DWA film seems to have a chase scene, and the one here almost comes off as obligatory.  There’s more excitement and vibrancy in the character scenes rather than the set pieces.  At the end of the chase, Classified and his team, “The North Wind”, rescue the Penguins by defeating the octopi.
  • Finally, we got a scene featuring the Penguins at North Wind HQ, and we get a nice comparison of how the Penguins may be silly but Skipper’s comic bravado is charming while Classified comes off as vain by taking credit for the Penguins’ accomplishments.  However, the real highlight of the scene is when the HQ is “hacked” by Dave and it goes like a bad Skype call.  Dave cackles when he sees the group, but there’s no audio, so he has to put on reading glasses and troubleshoot the technical difficulty.
  • That’s the whole vibe I’m getting from The Penguins of Madagascar: It’s a spy-thriller spoof, and the story is being anchored by characters we already know and like rather than trying to build something from the ground up.  I’m usually not excited for DreamWorks Animation movies, but I can’t wait to see this one.

Penguins of Madagascar opens in 3D on November 14th.  Click here for all of our our Comic-Con 2014 coverage.




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