As we all know, when it comes to kids’ films, too much of a good thing does not exist. If children want something, they get it and then some. Ever since the inception of companies like Dreamworks and Pixar, then, we have had sequel after sequel of successful original movies. And the cinemagoers keep coming. The latest in a long and twisting tale of cinematic expansion is Penguins of Madagascar, an offshoot from the original Madagascar, released in 2005.
Like so many films, the relatively minor penguin characters in the original film proved to be a huge success with audiences, interspersed in the narrative with their increasingly bizarre attempts to escape. As the film series went on, the penguins were give more and more airtime and now, finally, have been granted their own cinematic debut. This time, the penguins have gone big. Voiced by stars such as Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich, the penguins set on the trail of the evil Dr. Octavius Brine, hatching a plan to overturn his reign and save the world.
Giving the penguins’ antics musical life is composer Lorne Balfe, who, it seems, had as much fun as the penguins when scoring the movie. Speaking of the composition process, Balfe admitted that “every day I spent writing the score was filled with laughing fits over the penguin’s antics and the mischief they get up to in this film”.
There’s certainly hilarity in Balfe’s music. From the opening self titled cue, it’s immediately clear the type of characters and action sequences which will appear in the film. The cue is punctuated by a jaunty and energetic pulse and dotted with with upbeat and often frenetically brief melodies. Balfe knows her audience well; the sound is constantly driven, moving on to the next thing, finding adventure in new places.
Balfe’s music is cinematic to the core. As each track moves and adapts, it is very easy to envisage the action on screen and to invent problems for the penguins. In the upbeat sort of jazz that Balfe invents, the slapstick cuteness of the penguins is almost tangible. With the brief interjections of tinkling rhythms and drum breaks, you can imagine their dexterity, or clumsiness, or both. For the type of film it represents, Balfe’s sound is incredibly well suited. Like the penguins, she knows when to leave things lying, often ending on sudden and yet incredibly well timed musical hits.
A defining feature of Balfe’s music is that it is never one thing for more than a few moments. Whilst a cue may start as underplayed, or awe inspired, it is soon unbeat, then perilous and then comical. This is both a blessing and a curse. In one sense, it moves the music forward, it makes Balfe’s composition utterly cinematic and tells the story of the narrative. However, by chopping and changing with such speed and vigour, it can often feel as if you are being left behind, as if, when listening to the music, you are trying desperately to catch a speeding train which is moving ever further away.
Balfe’s score entirely fits its purpose: It is narrative, energetic and consistently entertaining. In her sound, she captures the actions and personalities of the penguins with such precision that it is hard to listen to the soundtrack without a smile on your face. For its cinematic genre, Balfe’s score is incredibly effective. If Penguins of Madagascar is anything to go by, then Balfe is clearly a composer who understands not only the subtleties of music but also those of cinema, too.