'Penguins' marches to its own beat
TV cartoons based on hit movies are hardly new, and there's little mystery in that; why bother trying to create new characters when you can sponge off an existing Happy Meal? Still, Nickelodeon's latest animated series plays safe and clever at once, spinning off some lovable side characters from an established movie franchise, and giving them a franchise of their own.
"The Penguins of Madagascar," which premieres tonight at 9:30 before settling into its regular time slot at 10 a.m on Saturdays, focuses on some of the supporting players from the 2005 movie "Madagscar" and its sequel, last year's "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa."
Movie purists may quibble - if it's possible to be a purist about a pair of mid-quality DreamWorks productions - but I think it was wise for Nickelodeon to separate the series from the film, ignoring loose ends from the movies and giving the penguins a clean slate. Here, our far-traveling birds, who have explored various continents on the big screen, are back in their original home, the Central Park Zoo, acting cute for crowds of humans while nursing a firm sense of self-aggrandizement. Beneath their zoo display they've fashioned a secret underground lair, from which they launch rescue missions like some wild Antarctic squad of Keystone Kop commandos.
They're like the "Wonder Pets" on steroids - and a decent spoof of every action-hero drama in creation. (I like to think of them as tubby, black-and-white versions of the manly men in TV's "The Unit." If that show needs anything, it's penguins.) And their nemesis remains the self-aggrandizing King Julien, a lemur with an entourage.
Sure this amounts to a big commercial for the "Madagascar" DVDs, but it's also possible to enjoy the show without having seen the films. The characters are kooky enough, the sight gags are funny enough, and the voices are appealing, even (or especially) without the vocal star power. One of the few voice actors to reprise his movie role is Tom McGrath, who plays the penguin leader, Skipper. (He also directed both "Madagascar" films and clearly has a stake in the action here.)
Andy Richter also returns as Mort, a sycophantic little lemur who exists to worship Julien. Thank goodness he has a new gig on the "Tonight Show," because his considerable comic talents are wasted in a part that mostly requires squeaking in pain as he smashes into walls.
King Julien, voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen in the movie, is played here quite serviceably by Danny Jacobs. And MADtv's Nicole Sullivan plays an otter named Marlene, who tolerates the penguin squad quite nicely.
And what's not to tolerate? This gang of TV stars might not be quite as joyously kooky (or impressively original) as the "SpongeBob" crew. But they make for fun Saturday morning fare, as safe and controlled as a day at the zoo.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.