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"The Penguins of Madagascar": I Was a Penguin Zombie DVD Review

The Penguins of Madagascar: I Was a Penguin Zombie DVD cover art - click to buy DVD from Amazon.com The Penguins of Madagascar: I Was a Penguin Zombie
Show & DVD Details

Executive Producers: Bob Schooley, Mark McCorkle / Director: Bret Haaland / Supervising Director: Nick Filippi / Animation Supervisors: Chris Neuhahn, Randy Dormans, Peter Hixson

Writers: Bill Motz, Bob Roth, Bob Schooley, Mark McCorkle, Brandon Sawyer, Kim Duran / Storyboarders: Christo Stamboliev, Caleb Meurer, Wolf-Rüdiger Bloss, Fred Osmond, Johane Matte, David Chlystek / Character Creators: Tom McGrath, Eric Darnell

Voice Cast: Tom McGrath (Skipper), John DiMaggio (Rico, Burt, Bada, Announcer #2, Snake), Jeff Bennett (Kowalski, Announcer #1, Computer Voice, Voice), James Patrick Stuart (Private, Scientist, Joey, Lab Tech), Danny Jacobs (King Julien, Delivery Boy), Kevin Michael Richardson (Maurice, Bing, Duck), Andy Richter (Mort), Nicole Sullivan (Marlene), Conrad Vernon (Mason), Mary Scheer (Alice, Female Doctor) / Guest Voices: Brian George (Vet), Richard Kind (Roger), Fred Stoller (Fred)

Running Time: 100 Minutes (8 episodes) / Rating: Not Rated (TV-Y7 on air)
1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen / Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French), Dolby Surround (English, Spanish)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish; Closed Captioned
Episodes Originally Aired June 2009 - March 2010 (One Unaired)
DVD Release Date: October 5, 2010 / Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9) / Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase

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DreamWorks Animation seems to be the only studio keeping a two-way street open between the movie and television worlds. Ignoring the obvious business realities (movies are promoted on television and eventually end up there, television is increasingly promoted in theaters), the traffic between the two mediums has been rather one-directional of late. That direction is taking TV shows (or even movies) that are (or were) popular and expanding them to feature film treatment. I could give you a long list of examples, but three semi-recent ones ("Sex and the City", "Hannah Montana", and "The A-Team") should suffice.

What DreamWorks is doing is not new. The 1980s and early 1990s were full of animated series adapted from movies,
as diverse as Ghostbusters, Jumanji, RoboCop, Rambo, and Ace Ventura. That trend seemingly ended around the same time that networks began pushing youth programming with clear educational value. DreamWorks isn't doing anything as drastic as repurposing violent R-rated fare for kids. The studio is simply taking the characters from its reliably profitable films and putting them to use in TV series and holiday specials.

The one major series so far is Nickelodeon's "The Penguins of Madagascar", introduced just three weeks after the November 2008 theatrical debut of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. Already tapped for the 2005 short Christmas Caper, the fan favorite penguins were an obvious choice for their own show, DreamWorks' first since NBC's costly, short-lived "Father of the Pride" (2004).

The title logo for "The Penguins of Madagascar" credits both Nickelodeon and DreamWorks while, like most of the series, avoiding the edges of the widescreen frame. To Kowalski's shock, Private wastes and stomps upon a vital vial of MacGuffium in "It's About Time."

"Penguins", introduced on Saturday mornings and now airing weekday afternoons as well, focuses on four penguins and their interactions before and after hours at their home, New York's Central Park Zoo. In case you need a refresher, they are: dutiful ringleader Skipper, brainy inventor Kowalski (a Charlton Hestonesque part that might have been perfect for the great Phil Hartman, were he alive), English goofball Private, and the barely verbal weirdo Rico, who purges an assortment of items (mostly explosives) from his seemingly bottomless stomach.

The show also regularly features the lemurs, loopy King Julien (voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen in the movie, but not here) and his put-upon subjects Maurice and Mort. As far as I can tell, the four stars of the Madagascar films (lion Alex, zebra Marty, hippo Gloria, and giraffe Melman) have never appeared on the show.

Surprisingly, the franchise fares better as episodic television comedy than it has as feature films. In my book, the two Madagascar movies rank pretty lowly among the DreamWorks Animation canon. But "Penguins" has no trouble meeting the lesser demands of the small screen. Even those who aren't amused by the penguins in the movies, where their dynamic alone was the joke, should enjoy this show which goes beyond that premise with diverting character and story material.

They may not receive mention in the title, but lemurs Maurice, Julien, and Mort still feature prominently on "The Penguins of the Madagascar." No, Marlene, a Nicole Sullivan-voiced otter created for the series is not having a Lloyd Dobler moment. She and Skipper are playing her snore recordings for a sewer creature.

"Penguins" is a throwback to the not so distant past when animated series didn't get so caught up in being educational or playing to one gender and a narrow age demographic. This is a broadly entertaining show, aimed foremost at kids but likely to hold the attention and enjoyment of anyone giving it a chance. While not as dripping with cultural references as say "Animaniacs", the show does pepper in jokes that kids won't catch; not the kind of adult innuendo that often leaves a bad taste, but tiny clever nods to things like Hitchcock, The Beach Boys, and Planet of the Apes.

There is no rigid, repetitive format and you won't mistake one quarter-hour episode for another. The computer animation isn't theatrical feature quality; that's no surprise because Pixar spends four years making their movies, and DreamWorks typically devotes two to three.
But the visuals are good enough and the movies didn't set the bar very high in that department. More importantly, the writing is sharp, striking a strong balance between jokes and plot while keeping things moving.

Timed to Halloween and dealing with fright and the supernatural but not the holiday itself, I Was a Penguin Zombie was released yesterday, the fourth DVD compilation devoted to the series. It contains eight quarter-hour episodes, arranged not chronologically and not as they were paired to fill a half-hour of airtime, but in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. The disc continues a "Penguins" DVD tradition by including one episode that hasn't yet aired. According to the press release, it will only remain exclusive to DVD for four weeks, although other DVD premiere episodes still haven't aired on Nickelodeon yet. Besides one Season 2 show, the remaining six episodes all stem from the 15-month-long first season, more than half of which is now available on DVD.

The DVD preserves the opening title sequences and episode-specific credits, with which each episode runs 11 minutes and 43 seconds. End credits are saved for the end of the entire group, playing 48-second reels in succession with episode title cards in between. If you select episodes individually, end credits do not play at all, but the whole lot is accessible from the same episode menu. And now, let's look at the featured episodes...

Rico discovers the joys of joyrides in the unaired episode "Driven to the Brink." King Julien quickly warms to the idea of a robot mirroring his every action in "Lemur See, Lemur Do."

1. I Was a Penguin Zombie (Originally aired October 24, 2009)
While fishing for condiments, Skipper breaks his wing. Checking on him, the others mistakenly believe he's died and become a zombie. Comic misunderstanding, here we come!

2. Driven to the Brink (DVD Premiere; Not yet aired)
Rico's reckless late-night joyriding results in the car being haunted and out to get him, or so it seems.

3. Haunted Habitat (Originally aired March 28, 2009)
Marlene the otter keeps getting disturbed in her sleep. She and Skipper wind up in the sewer on the trail of a mysterious noisemaker.

4. Lemur See, Lemur Do (Originally aired August 1, 2009)
Receiving a life-emulating robot meant to be trained, King Julien names him Lemmy and becomes his friend.

Ordinarily diminutive mouse lemur Mort assumes larger than life dimensions and super strength in "Mort Unbound." Rico hopes pillows will avert the foul end predicted in "Misfortune Cookie."

5. Eclipsed (Originally aired June 6, 2009)
The chimpanzees use a total solar eclipse to teach Julien a lesson to be nice.

6. Mort Unbound (Originally aired June 26, 2009)
Mort is zapped with super strength, enabling him and Julien to stand up to big animals for their food.

7. Misfortune Cookie (Originally aired August 1, 2009)
Rico's fortune cookie predicts a foul end for him, something Julien and the lemurs plot to make happen to instill belief in curses.

8. It's About Time (Originally March 13, 2010)
Multiple Kowalskis from the future approach the penguins with conflicting warnings about the effects of present-day Kowalski's time travel experimentation.

Summer Movie Costumes

VIDEO and AUDIO

Picture quality is expectedly quite flawless with nothing standing in between the digital creation and this digital medium. Thankfully, the series is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, showing that DreamWorks and Nickelodeon are with the times, as their competitors aren't always. All major bases are covered in the DVD's offering of Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 surround tracks in English plus Spanish and French dubs and subtitles in all three. The 5.1 mixes are adequate, lacking the impact and directionality of big screen fare, but presenting everything in clear, crisp fashion with music and atmosphere sufficiently expanding.

Five of DreamWorks Animation's most popular films are treated to pop music videos in the jukebox. It's promotional, but hey, it's something. Enjoy the DVD main menu for I Was a Zombie Penguin at your own pace here, because the DVD quickly bounces you to a Play All playback.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

As is often the case on this kind of DVD, there are no real bonus features found here. We do get a "DreamWorks Animation & Nickelodeon Sneak Peaks (sic)" menu, which holds
trailers for Megamind, How to Train Your Dragon, Shrek Forever After, and The Last Airbender, plus TV and DVD ads for "The Penguins of Madagascar", "Dora the Explorer", "Go Diego, Go!", and "SpongeBob SquarePants."

Also, the DreamWorks Animation Video Jukebox (8:20) is an abridged version of the promotional feature found on any DreamWorks animated film's DVD. It offers individual and group playback of the following five pop song covers: "I'm a Believer" (from Shrek), "Rockin' in the Suburbs" (Over the Hedge), "I Like to Move It" (Madagascar), "Kung Fu Fighting" (Kung Fu Panda), and "Here Comes the Sun" (Bee Movie). It's a smart way to promote the studio's 12-year-old CGI catalog and it's not like space is a commodity on this dual-layered disc, even if those who are interested have probably already seen these 1-2-minute music videos enough times.

Inspired by the title episode, lightning strikes more than twice while Rico and Kowalski throw a lit bomb back and forth on the zany animated main menu, which starts playing all episodes if you let it run through. There are no inserts within the ecologically-cut keepcase. Although online graphics depict a DreamWorks cloud-bordered slipcover over the DVD, this review copy did not carry one.

The penguins fear that a green, wrapped Skipper is undead in the title episode "I Was a Penguin Zombie." In "Eclipsed", chimpanzees Mason and Phil have a perfectly-timed go at their oft-inconsiderate lemur zoo-mate King Julien.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I find DreamWorks' Madagascar movies merely tolerable at their best, but with the franchise narrowed in on supporting characters and moved to the less breathtaking world of TV animation, it's quite a bit easier to enjoy.
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I wasn't bowled over with laughter, but I was regularly entertained and it's refreshing to find a modern cartoon that opts for general amusement over a specific niche target.

I Was a Penguin Zombie represents the extent of my exposure to the show, so I can't say if this compilation is better or worse than the three that precede it. The presentation at least is rather flawless. Sure, a big box set would be preferable for the customer, but the studios clearly fare better taking this approach, since plenty of customers are more willing to spend $15 on a 90-minute DVD than $30 on a 4-hour set (pure speculation on what a half-season collection might be). The show seems popular enough that we may just yet see a more complete, chronological release, but enough people will have to purchase these single discs first. Whether you join them or wait and hope is your call.

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Reviewed October 6, 2010.



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