Trashy, goofy, and surprisingly sincere, this superhero fantasy is better than you expect but not as good as it should be.
The Dreamworks/Fox animation panel at New York Comic-Con Sunday morning was expertly moderated by RogerEbert.com's own Susan Wloszczyna. She presented the directors of two upcoming films, November’s “Penguins of Madagascar” and March 2015’s “Home.” Both, she told us, “have a lot of fun with Hollywood genres,” tweaking and in some cases completely upending the assumptions and conventions we are accustomed to seeing.
“I loved the idea of thrusting the penguins into a 1960’s James Bond movie with a totally crazy villain,” grinned “Penguins of Madagascar” co-director Simon J. Smith. And who better to play that totally crazy villain, an octopus who disguises himself as a man called Dr. Octavius Brine, than John Malkovich? “He was totally committed,” Smith told us, describing the actor waving his arms around in the recording booth as he performed. “It was fantastic fuel for the animators.” Malkovich was their first choice for the role. “We wanted a villain you could never forget, crazy, unexpected, a gravitas.”
There’s also a smooth James Bond-style master spy, a wolf who, according to Wloszczyna, is “a bit of a fox.” That is in large part due to the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, as an operative of an organization called The North Wind.
Co-director Eric Darnell explained that the story is more a spin-off than a sequel, and is a separate “penguin reality” parallel to the television series (“The Penguins of Madagascar” – note the “The”). It begins just after “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” with the penguins in the circus, but then takes them on a “fantastic worldwide adventure,” from Venice to Shanghai, the Gobi Desert, the South Pacific, and…Kentucky. Attendees got the first look at a very funny scene in which our heroes break into Fort Knox, in search of something even more precious than gold.
We also saw a hilarious scene where the efforts of the octopus to deliver his threats are impeded by his inability to make the video chat interface work. “It’s like talking to my parents,” the wolf mutters after repeated efforts to get him to click on the microphone in the corner of the screen.
And, as an extra treat, we saw a six-minute segment that included the penguins’ origin story, explaining how they left Antarctica and why that poor private is so devoted to the Skipper. The film opens Thanksgiving weekend.
What “Penguins of Madagascar” does to the classic spy movies, “Home” does to alien invasion films. Tim Johnson (“Antz”) talked to Wloszczyna about “Home,” based on the Adam Rex book, The True Meaning of Smekday.
It’s the story of Oh (“Big Bang Theory’s” Jim Parsons), an alien from a nomadic population called Boov, led by Captain Smek (Steve Martin). In a short that appeared in theaters before “Peabody and Mr. Sherman,” we learned that the Boov have had many failures in their search for a new planet to inhabit. In “Home,” they decide that Earth seems just right. In 28 seconds they conquer the humans (their ability to control gravity helps), and then they relocate the entire population to a preserve in Australia.
Rihanna provides the voice for Tip, a resourceful young woman who manages to escape the relocation, and who is befriended by Oh, something of an outcast among the Boov. Johnson showed the audience a rollicking action scene set in Paris, where the Boov set up their headquarters.
He said they especially enjoyed “having fun with technology” for the Boov, which involves bubbles, and “reinventing the conventions and tropes of sci-fi for animation.” He added with a smile, “It’s just another post-apocalyptic alien invasion buddy movie.”
Rhianna created songs for the soundtrack, and instead of a “needle-drop,” with a pop song interrupting an orchestral score, “Home” uses her songs to create the movie’s musical theme. It’s “pretty seamless,” he said. “The tunes become the themes for the characters, woven into the narrative of the story.”
Johnson was delighted to reunite with one of his “Antz” stars, Jennifer Lopez, who plays Tip’s mother, noting that while he no longer had hair as he did the last time they worked together, she had not changed a bit and was “amazing and radiant.” They did decide to alter the main alien character’s name, though, to avoid confusion. In the book, “Oh” is named “J.Lo.” Johnson got a special kick out of casting Emmy-winner Parsons as Oh, the opposite of his hyper-rational character on “The Big Bang Theory.” Oh “craves connection, wants friends, and is looking to fit in….he loves Earth music, humor, and humanity.”
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