The Animated Penguin Trilogy

A certain monochromatic flightless bird became  a hot topic in movies in 2005, thanks to the documentary March of the Penguins. Coincidentally (these films already having been in production for several years) there soon followed a slew of animated movies featuring penguins.

Each of these films had a different conceit. In Madagascar (2005) the penguins act as though they’re in a WWII movie. In Happy Feet (2006) they sing en masse from a songbook they share with Glee. In Surf’s Up (2007), the penguins demonstrate uncanny skill in surfing. All well and good.

The Madagascar penguins are the most cartoony, differentiated by height, weight and voice. The Happy Feet penguins look and move the most realistically, thanks to motion captures of actors and dancers. This is just as creepy as it sounds. Their dedication to verisimilitude extends to using non-animated footage of human actors. The Surf’s Up penguins are the most expressive and differentiated in appearance (many of the characters sport feather patterns which resemble tattoos), but all the films follow the animated film convention of having immersive backgrounds which are more realistic than the characters. According to Scott McCloud’s comic theory, this allows projection by the audience and greater empathy with the characters.

Personally I enjoyed Surf’s Up the most, because once the characters were animated in their “space”, camera movements were added by re-“filming” the scenes using a hand-held camera covered in sensors. This means that the action has a shaky documentary feel, which leads to some good visual jokes. And it’s less creepy than watching a tap dancing penguin with Elijah Wood’s bright blue eyes. Just because it worked with Gollum…

Technically all of these films are interesting in different ways, but they lack the quality of script and characterization delivered so effortlessly by Pixar productions. Surf’s Up is worth it for Jeff Bridges retreading his Dude character from The Big Lebowski, and Jon Heder’s permastoned chicken.

Why am I dwelling on all this, you ask? Because there’s been a lot of films on over Xmas. And I’m teaching myself Maya animation from a book which uses Surf’s Up for the tutorials!


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