Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, John Malkovich, Peter Stormare, Ken Jeong
Directors: Eric Darnell, Simon J. Smith
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
Running Time: 92 minutes
Synopsis: The Penguins of Madagascar are back in their very own feature film! Featuring the enterprising Penguins from DreamWorks Animation's Madagascar franchise, this 3D comedy adventure stars Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private in their very own spy thriller.
The Penguins of Madagascar
Release Date: January 1st, 2015
How The Team Was Hatched
The Penguins' transition from beloved supporting characters in 'Madagascar" to headlining their own big screen epic was a no-brainer, thanks to their memorable traits. 'What drives the Penguins in all the films are their distinct and strong personalities," says director Eric Darnell.
Adds director Simon J. Smith: 'They're like a band of brothers who above all value their friendship, moral code and love for one another."
Most importantly, the Penguins really bring the funny. 'The most exciting thing about the project was to experience the story's and characters' humor," says producer Mark Swift. 'They're so appealing because they are so hilarious."
There's Skipper, voiced by Tom McGrath, who created the characters for the blockbuster animated feature 'Madagascar," which he helmed, along with Eric Darnell. McGrath had originally envisioned Skipper being voiced by an authoritative Hollywood icon with 'a momentous, straight-man kind of attitude" – but when that didn't work out, he ended up with the role, himself. 'Well, I was cheap, anyway," he jokes.
Tom McGrath's Skipper is the team's fearless leader and keeper of the Penguin code. He demands loyalty, obedience and order from his regimented flock, and asks nothing of his men that he wouldn't do himself. His right-flipper man, Kowalski, voiced by DreamWorks animator Chris Miller, is the brains of the operation, and the go-to guy when the Penguins need a quick, life-saving fix.
The third member of the team, Rico, is 'voiced" by DreamWorks Animation artist and Madagascar 3 director Conrad Vernon. Rico lives to blow things up. When he's kept on a tight leash, Rico is an effective weapon, but left to his own devices is a loose cannon. Finally, there's Private, voiced by DreamWorks Animation editor Christopher Knights; although he is the runt of the team, Private has the biggest heart of them all. Private is always up for new challenges, but because the group still sees him as the 'baby," he's often sidelined during their missions.
Each of the Penguins makes a memorable impression, and collectively, they're a force to be reckoned with. 'The sum of the Penguins is greater than the parts," says Eric Darnell. 'The guys work incredibly well as a group – far better than they would as individuals. They're like four parts of a complete brain: You've got Skipper's leadership, Private's heart, Kowalski's smarts, and Rico's courage. So the four of them make this whole, and that makes them a lot of fun."
In fact, the Penguins are very much in the tradition of great movie teams, notes Tom McGrath, like The A-Team, The Dirty Dozen, 'Star Trek's" Kirk and Spock, and even The Marx Brothers. 'They're these huge personalities in a tiny package," he says. 'And like many great screen teams, the Penguins are taken out of their comfort zone. They embark on a globetrotting adventure, where they meet characters who really make the Penguins step up their game."
Their inextricable bonds and unforgettable antics are on full display when we discover the origins of the Penguins in the film's opening sequences, set in Antarctica's icy wasteland. Right off the bat, we're aware that these are not your typical penguins. Skipper, Kowalski and Rico are marching to the beat of a different drummer, avoiding the documentary-film tropes of penguins waddling across the icy tundra and triggering audience exclamations of 'aren't they cute!"
The film's opening moments poke fun at such footage, as a filmmaker, voiced by legendary director Werner Herzog (who actually helmed a documentary about Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World), who is following a line of penguins doing what penguins do in these situations. Of course, our trio (soon to be quartet) of Penguins isn't satisfied just marching along the ice. 'They're driven by a deeper calling," says Chris Miller. 'Skipper, Kowalski and Rico don't want to be like every other penguin waiting in line and parading around Antarctica. They know there's got to be something more out there."
Instead, our Penguins are busy giving each other the 'high-one" and, after a breathless series of escapades during which they dive, dodge and weave away from danger, welcome a new member to the troupe – Private, who's just hatched. The lead-up to Private's birth provides not only wonderfully comic moments filled with action and adventure, but a heartwarming interlude during which the four Penguins cement their familial bonds.
Private's arrival and initiation onto the team marks the beginning of the Penguins' epic adventure, as well as a fun and moving journey for the young newbie, who yearns, says Christopher Knights, to be a 'valuable and accepted member of the group. And by journey's end, he attains that goal, and so much more. But even as he strives to become an unexpected action hero, Private remains cute and cuddly." 'The opening scene was a great opportunity to explore the Penguins' origins and to turn the clichés of documentaries about penguins on their head," Eric Darnell adds. 'We asked ourselves, -What if you we took our Penguins and put them in that [documentary-like] world? How would they feel about that kind of stereotype?'"
Another cliché-buster is the boys' obsession with a succulent but hazardous piece of puffed heaven known as Cheesy Dibbles. For the Penguins, the beloved snack is worth more than its weight in gold – literally – as evidenced by their excursion into Fort Knox, the most secure facility in North America, for a very special celebration of Private's birthday. The aim is not to steal the facility's billions of dollars of bullion, but the Cheesy Dibbles housed in a vending machine.
There's more to the chemically-laced 'food" than gastronomic delights, hints Simon Smith. 'It's almost like a MacGuffin," he says, referring to Alfred Hitchcock's term for a plot device that would often misdirect audiences. 'The Cheesy Dibbles are actually valuable to the Penguins in the end. The snacks actually do something."
Meet 'Dave," The Penguins' Tentacled Nemesis
Raiding Fort Knox for a tasty treat is nothing compared to the challenges the Penguins face when they come up against Dr. Octavius Brine. A renowned geneticist, cheese-enthusiast (at least he has that in common with the Penguins) and donor to public radio pledge drives, the good doctor's limbs are skewed at impossible angles, which isn't that surprising because he's actually an octopus named Dave. And Dave bears a ginormous grudge against the Penguins. Dave was once a star attraction at various zoos around the world, until the adorable, cuter-than-cute Penguins stole the spotlight away from him, relegating him forever as an exhibit also-ran. 'You took everything from me!" he bellows at the Penguins, and he's about to take extreme measures to once again become a star attraction.
The filmmakers wanted Dave to be an adversary whom audiences wouldn't soon forget. 'Dave is a villain like those in the classic tradition of the James Bond films," says producer Mark Swift. 'He has a big agenda; this is a guy who wants to change the world."
And have a good time doing it. 'Dave is not one of those brooding, dark bad guys," says Eric Darnell. 'He's always celebrating, dancing, laughing and having a good time."
To give Dave a bigger-than-life comic presence, they really thought outside the box in casting the role. 'We wanted someone who was new to animated features and would bring gravitas in terms of stage craft, which would bring some weight as well as fun to the character," says Simon Smith.
They turned to Academy Award® nominee John Malkovich, who has distinguished himself in films, on stage, and on television. Making his animated feature debut, Malkovich quickly latched onto Dave's vengeance-fueled motivations. 'Dave feels he had his life ruined at every zoo and aquatic park he's called home, once the Penguins arrived," he notes. 'They're cute, so people oohed and aahed over them, so Dave would no longer get any attention."
To Dave, the Penguins are the story's true villains. 'These Penguins ruined his life by stealing all the attention and just standing there or waddling around, while Dave actually performed tricks and acrobatics, only to have people ignore him," adds the actor. 'So he has very strong feelings about the Penguins, but they aren't even aware of him. Which makes them even more annoying to Dave!"
John Malkovich quickly embraced his inner mollusk, but was also eager to give Dave's thirst for vengeance some subtext. 'We strategized with John Malkovich and came up with the idea that this film is the third act of Dave's life," says Simon Smith. 'Dave's plot is the culmination of ten years of planning, which entails kidnapping the Penguins, developing a transformative technology that will change Penguin-hood forever, and disguising himself as a human. All that subtext made the role much more fun for John Malkovich."
Dave's solution to his Penguin problem is a serum that turns the adorable creatures into tuxedo-clad grotesqueries. It's a dastardly plan worthy of a true super-villain, but as Malkovich explains, Dave's villainy has several dimensions. 'He's quite quixotic and can change moods and points of view almost instantaneously. So he's slippery in every way – emotionally and physically."
The actor's physical performance while recording the role so impressed the DreamWorks Animation team that they lifted parts of it to create the final animated performance. 'John Malkovich and Benedict [Cumberbatch, who voices Classified] just didn't do voice recordings for this film. They act out the scene; they're very theater-based in that way," says Eric Darnell.
'Moving around in the booth while voicing the role was kind of natural because Dave is so slippery and gelatinous," John Malkovich elaborates. 'I'd move my arms and pretty much the rest of my body. I found it really helpful to have that physical manifestation."
Perhaps abetting the actor's drive to get into character was his resemblance to his cinematic alter ego. 'Yeah, Dave does look a bit like me – but he looks even more like my youngest sister," he says with a laugh.
Dave is aided by his octopi henchmen, who do his bidding with ninja-like moves. Their innate abilities, including camouflage, flexibility, and a vise-like grip make them a multi-limbed threat to our heroes. Their interactions with Dave also provide a rich source of verbal byplay, complementing the film's plentiful physical gags. Dave's instructions to his team result in hilarious puns; one, of many, examples: 'Nicolas, cage [the Penguins]!" The filmmakers had brainstormed dozens of these celebrity-themed verbal gags, the best of which made it into the finished film.
Nobody Breaks The Wind!
The Penguins are ever-confident in their ability to deal with Dave's insidious plans, but a group of covert operatives known as The North Wind (their motto: 'Nobody breaks The Wind!"), who help animals in need, do not think the guys are up to the task. In fact, the members of The North Wind do everything they can to take over the mission to stop Dave, much to the chagrin of Skipper and the gang.
'On the surface it looks like The North Wind is the real deal and Skipper maybe should get out of the way," says producer Lara Breay. 'It's like the -grown-ups' have arrived, so the kids can go home now. But during the course of the adventure, we come to appreciate the Penguins' strengths. They don't have the flash or training, but they have something that's more important."
The North Wind is led by Agent Classified. The first thing you should know about Classified is that his name is actually classified, and not 'Classified." He's a highly-trained but cocky secret agent who underestimates the Penguins' operation. Classified is the Alpha male of the tech-savvy team, and Skipper's polar opposite. If Skipper's look-before-you-leap attitude is reminiscent of John Wayne (or, suggests Tom McGrath, Charlton Heston, circa 1968's Planet of the Apes), then Classified's super-suaveness and mastery of espionage would make 007 take notice.
The casting of Benedict Cumberbatch, a celebrated and in-demand actor thanks to, among other performances, his work in the title role of the phenomenally popular BBC/PBS series 'Sherlock," came about almost three years ago, just before 'Sherlock" debuted in the U.S. Simon Smith explains: 'One of our crew is Australian, and the series had already aired there. He told us that we should check out the work of this guy called Benedict Cumberbatch. We saw -Sherlock' when it arrived in the U.S., and we knew then he was a special talent and would be the perfect foil for Skipper. Benedict Cumberbatch is so eloquent and has a fantastic voice that was perfect for Classified."
'We just loved Benedict Cumberbatch's voice; it's like a cello," adds Lana Breay. 'It's just beautiful to listen to, but it also carries a particular kind of authority. Benedict Cumberbatch is also great at selling the jokes. For a character like Classified, the straighter you play it, the better the joke lands. And Cumberbatch Benedict was just perfect."
The British actor reveals that Classified is 'an all-action wolf who heads up The North Wind, which looks after animal welfare wherever it needs looking after. He knows about Dave's plot and Classified attempts to con the Penguins to reveal everything they know about their mutual adversary."
When the Penguins seek to play a more prominent role in dealing with Dave's dastardly deeds, Classified moves to shut them down and ship them back to Madagascar. 'Classified brought the Penguins to The North Wind to obtain information, but he wants his team to handle the field work and covert ops," says Benedict Cumberbatch.
But the boys will have none of that! After a series of daring escapades, the Penguins think they're back on track to locate Dave, only to find themselves on a passenger jet headed in the wrong direction. In their typical shoot-first-ask-questions-later attitude, the Penguins make their escape sans parachutes. Fortunately, their improvisational and MacGyver-esque field skills lead them to discover a package containing a Bounce House, which they inflate mid-air, and make a soft, springy landing on terra firma.
'The scene demonstrates the massive difference between the Penguins, who are very gung ho and just go for it, and The North Wind team, who are defined by their gadgets, planning, data and strategies," says Simon Smith. Adds Eric Darnell: 'The Penguins have a supreme confidence in themselves and their abilities, even when the odds stacked against them are incredibly huge. They just don't even blink. They're so sincere and operate from such a strong moral code, that somehow the universe just conspires to make things work out for them."
'The North Wind team thinks they hold all the cards because they're highly-trained, educated, have the best equipment, and nobody could ever top them," Eric Darnell continues. 'The Penguins are the underdogs."
But Classified and the rest of the North Wind team soon learn that you underestimate Skipper & Co. at your own peril. In fact, the conflicting teams are two sides of the same coin. 'Everything about The North Wind is chic, professional, planned and rigorous, and everything about the Penguins is haphazard, gung ho machismo," Benedict Cumberbatch explains. 'That's why the two teams so complementary. By the end of the film they really need each other's help, because they're even more powerful as a combined, elite force."
Benedict Cumberbatch had never before appeared in a movie with John Malkovich, whom he calls 'a legend." Alas, voicing an animated character usually entails working separately from the other vocal talent, so the two acting titans did not meet until they were teamed at a promotional appearance at the pop culture mega-conclave Comic-Con in San Diego. 'I met John Malkovich at the convention, and the first thing I asked him was something like, -So, what was it like playing an evil octopus?'" Cumberbatch remembers. The two actors proceeded to trade stories about their experiences in the land of the Penguins.
Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich are renowned for their careful and intricate preparation, and Penguins of Madagascar was no exception. 'The prep work was sheer hell," jokes Cumberbatch. 'I had to go undercover for a long time, working in Yellowstone Park as a wolf. Fortunately, I was accepted into the pack quickly. It got a bit hairy – no pun intended – when I became the alpha male."
Benedict Cumberbatch says he enjoyed having no inhibitions in portraying and researching the role. Moreover, he embraced Classified's skills and slick operation, as well as the character's hidden but important vulnerabilities. 'Classified has to learn to abandon his intricate and gadget-laden planning and sometimes just run at the problem, like the Penguins do. I like the idea of -unpacking' a spy and making him a bit more human, even if he's a wolf. And I've never done that on screen before."
Classified isn't the only operative being 'unpacked." He is joined in The North Wind by Short Fuse (Ken Jeong), a small seal who, though he looks like a plush toy, is as tough as any member of the team. The North Wind's explosives expert, Short Fuse has a volatile temper to match his vocational expertise. Then there's Eva (Annet Mahendru), an intelligence analyst and thrill-seeking, brainy beauty of an owl with a killer instinct. Finally, Corporal (Peter Stomare), a polar bear who's eight feet tall and armored in a half-ton of muscle, is the brawn of the Wind.
Of all the North Winders, Short Fuse may be the most like the Penguins, says Ken Jeong. 'Like the Penguins, Short Fuse relies on his cunning and skills to save the day. He's cute but also formidable."
Similarly, Eva, an owl who gives more than a hoot for her work protecting animals, merges adorability with an impressive skillset as an analyst. Despite her tough-as-nails nature, she has a soft spot in her heart for Kowalski, who similarly harbors a crush on her. Annet Mahendru, who portrays a Russian spy on the acclaimed series The Americans, notes that though her television role and Eva share a Russian accent and vocation, they have little else in common. 'Well, Eva can fly, for one thing," jokes the actress.
Swedish actor Peter Stormare also avoids typecasting, even though he plays a figure of similarly Nordic extraction – Corporal, a Norwegian polar bear. Here again, a tough exterior masks a soft and playful heart, as evidenced by his love for Penguins. 'He's very cool," says Stormare of his bearish alter-ego, 'and he has a big, big generous heart, but with a Norwegian twang."
It's a safe bet that all the uber-spies of The North Wind will come around to the Penguins' methods. And it's an even more logical bet that the results of their teaming and battle with Dave will result in laughs and some heartfelt moments.
Moreover, says Eric Darnell, the Penguins, as a team and as individuals, offer something for everyone. 'As an audience member, you can find any way into the Penguin team that suits your personality and point of view," he explains.
Adds Simon J. Smith: 'The Penguins are 100 percent committed to whatever they're doing and always believe they're going to do exactly the right thing, and even if it turns out wrong, they don't care. They'll try something else – and be equally confident about that. The Penguins don't let the perceptions of others deter them; they prove that anyone is capable of being a hero and that you can do anything if you really put your mind to it. That's what I love about them."
Tom McGrath, who along with Eric Darnell helped give birth to the comic quartet nine years ago, notes: 'If I had three words to describe Penguins of Madagascar, I would just say, -funny,' -funny,' and -heart.' It's a broad comedy, of course, but there's also some heart that sneaks up on you and has a great message for everyone, which is -Don't judge a book by its cover.'"
The Penguins of Madagascar
Release Date: January 1st, 2015