SDCC | Directors & Actors Talk Espionage and Hilarity in 'Penguins of Madagascar'

DreamWorks Animation’s Madagascar films have won over audiences with their comical characters, heartfelt storylines and over-the-top action. Following the release of the third installment, 2012’s Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, the studio decided to expand the franchise, first with a television series and comic books, and now with a spinoff starring the fan-favorite penguins Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private.

Opening Nov. 26, Penguins of Madagascar finds the foursome teaming with the North Wind, and elite undercover organization led by Agent Classified (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), to stop the villainous Dr. Octavius Brine (John Malkovich) from destroying the world.

At Comic-Con International in San Diego, Spinoff Online was among a group of journalists that spoke about the CG-animated film with directors Simon J. Smith and Eric Darnell and voice actors Malkovich and Tom McGrath.

The penguins are looking to solve some sort of mystery in this film. Can you tell us more?

Simon J. Smith: Basically penguins have to save the world from an evil villain called Dr. Octavius. He's an octopus voiced by John Malkovich. Along the way, they stumble into a mission being led by Benedict Cumberbatch's character, called Agent Classified. They're a legitimate spy organization who goes around saving helpless animals around the world, so you've got this fantastic contrast to all the James Bond aspect with Agent Classified, the John Wayne / Skipper’s mentality of shoot first, ask questions later, and then hilarity continues from there.

The last movie had music that had such heart to the movie. Will you be adding some great songs to this film?

Eric Darnell: We are. We can't necessarily announce them right now, but we have some original material in the works, and also, of course, Lorne Balfe, who helped work with Hans Zimmer work for the score for the Madagascar films, is scoring the film and has done some amazing, amazing score so far. I think between the score and whatever needle-drop and original songs are written, we're going to have a great musical component to the film.

Smith: I think that's part of the surprise of the movie is that there's a nice little heart element to it.

Is there any chance of Uncle Nigel or any other characters from the TV series showing up at any point in the film?

Darnell: Uncle Nigel from the TV series? This is only in direct line with the movies. This picks up where Madagascar 3 ends and continues the penguins’ story from there. They're getting really ... they're agonizing about that movement circus step, so they had to blast themselves out of the circus and get away from a little while. What starts as just an evening romp to celebrate Private's birthday ends up in a globetrotting Bond-scope world tour across five continents, exotic locales, as they find themselves in this mission to try and take down Dr. Octavius Brine before he ruins the planet.

Do you work separately? Are you in the glass booths and talking to nobody?

John Malkovich: At least when I've recorded, I've always had excellent readers opposite me, normally one person who reads a lot of things but who read very, very well.

Darnell: It's not uncommon for the actors not to meet face to face until the movie's done.

Tom [McGrath], was it difficult casting Skipper and finding the right voice?

Tom McGrath: Originally we wanted actor Robert Stack to voice Skipper, and Robert Stack is incredible. A lot of his personality was based off of Robert's work. I don't know if you remember him from The Untouchables, and he was just fantastic.

When it came time for us to cast, we were two weeks away from animation and Robert Stack unfortunately passed away. I was filling in the scratch voice and fell into the part. I would've been amazing to have Robert lend his voice because he's just a incredible actor. [Looks up] So this is for you up there!

John [Malkovich], what's the most fun part about playing a bad guy?

Malkovich: Well, I don't know that there is anything sort of particularly, natively fun about that by definition. This one I think is quite fun because he seems a rather happy, lazy, not particularly profound or remorseful psychopath, and that's of course always a pleasure. It's been a very fun character to play. I mean I know actors sometimes say that, oh, that's more fun than playing the “good person" or the protagonist if something's meant to be decent. I'm not convinced about that, though. Some parts are more interesting than other parts, but they're not always interesting because the person is "bad"; they might just be better written.

Can you talk about casting John, and why you chose him for this role?

Smith: We wanted to have a villain you would never forget. I think John was such a unique performer and versatile performer; we wanted someone who would bring something to the table. So we approached, him praying that he would say yes, going to France to talk to him about another movie and he said yes. We couldn't be more lucky, and I think he saw the opportunity to see the amount of fun you can have with this character base. There's a lot of scope for him.

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