Monday, 29 December 2014


Check it out... if you despise the music Hans Zimmer provided for the Madagascar franchise, and desire the opportunity to find a score from the same cinematic universe which is energetic, entertaining and nostalgic 

Skip it... if you're not a fan of Lorne Balfe, or do not appreciate his lack of originality, even if the context calls for such, as is the case with The Penguins of Madagascar

"Ultimately, apart from the familiarity of much of the album and the less impressive slower moments, Penguins of Madagascar is a rewarding and highly enjoyable induction into the Lorne Balfe canon."

Despite the ingenuity and creative ability that is currently harboured at Dreamworks Animation, the company still continues to provide spin-offs and sequels which vie for the same success as their predecessors. This isn't necessarily an overtly negative thing, considering the critical and commercial acclaim most of the Dreamworks sequels and franchises have been credited with is certainly admirable. Examples of such include the astonishing How To Train Your Dragon series; the colourful Kung-Fu Panda films and the initially impressive Shrek franchise. Leeching off the prosperity of the Madagascar series, an animation franchise which has garnered over $1,874.5 million in its three primary films, is Simon Smith and Eric Darnell's The Penguins of Madagascar; a spin-off film which takes four of the most popular characters from the Madagascar films, the spy-like penguins, and throws them into their own feature, fit with origin story and multi-national spy espionage plots. Whilst it mind sound as if I'm immediately denoting this endeavour as a poorly handled one, I would like to make it clear to everyone that I am genuinely excited for this film, not only because I am a huge fan of both the original and secondary film in the original franchise, but due to those involved in regards to the directorial component, the writing department and the voice-actors. Receiving mild critical approval, it appears Dreamworks' latest investment has paid off in a positive manner, which I can do little but feel happy for.

In terms of the music for the Madagascar series, Hans Zimmer's material has always been met with a firm condemnation from music critics and scoring community members alike, primarily due to the lack of originality, variation or intelligent composition displayed within the poorly constructed albums. Put together by his usual horde of Remote Control affiliates, none of the prior releases have either broke new ground (literally, at all), nor impressed upon any fans of Zimmer's, a man usually famed for his mob of supporters, most of whom seemed to abandon him in regards to this particular franchise of less than acceptable quality. Nevertheless, with Hans Zimmer nowhere in sight, Lorne Balfe, a usual associate of the man and a member of Remote Control Productions, has stepped in to take on the role of composer for The Penguins of Madagascar, and his efforts have so far seen numerous acclaim, however mild, correlating with the quantity of approval seen for the picture of which it represents. Praised for its dexterity, speed and vitality, Penguins of Madagascar seems to transcend its generic origins and prove overtly entertaining for what I suspect would be the majority of those who partake in listening to the album. It's nothing groundbreaking, original or particularly refreshing, but what it lacks in anything that makes it at all distinctive it makes up for in terms of it boasting of an energy that is undeniably infectious. As the opening cue, the imaginatively titled 'The Penguins of Madagascar', starts up, it is immediately clear that Balfe is not trying to impose any semblance of individual personality into his work; it's blatantly obvious that this is a throwback-ish album, designed to prove satirical for the genre of spy-music, which is what the film was trying to accomplish. Never mind its familiarity from the first note; I'm sure even the most painfully heartless person would find it dreadfully difficult to simply sit and avoid tapping his foot or hamboning whilst listening to this energetic and absolutely, dare I say it, awesome piece of music. 

The central theme, introduced within this initial offering, is a leitmotif performed with all array of instruments, and is constantly adapted for numerous variables all throughout the score, as is immediately evident within the next cue, 'Antarctica', which gives renditions of the theme performed on horns, saxophones, light percussion, slight woodwind and other, varied instruments. Other various motifs drift in and out of the running time, the most commendable and blatant being the theme for the character Private, seen within 'Private's Theme'. Is it generic? Is it simplistic? Does it lack anything particularly innovative? Yes to all three. Is it entertaining? Is it passionate? Is it undeniably moving? Yes to all three. A probable villainous concept is introduced majorly within the first minute of 'Sclateri', and is delivered with a wonderful and gritty electric guitar for maximum effect. The same idea is delivered with brass and saxophone later on for a larger and more awe-inspiring reprise of the idea. For a stronger and more definitive version of the central villain theme, look towards the final song on the album, sung by Antony Genn, 'He Is Dave'; a song that immediately reminds me of a classic James Bond ballad. Not only is it relatively funny, but Balfe's instrumentation is strong and powerful, but never overpowering of the vocals. Other minor ideas are implemented all throughout the running time, perhaps the most memorable being the thematic concept introduced most prominently within 'Eudyptula Minor', a heroic and beautiful leitmotif that provides thrills and joy. Again, it's nothing that stands out as being overtly distinct, but it's entertaining all the same.

Despite the writing not being overtly inventive, the mixing and performances are all so damn entertaining that it's hard not get wrapped up in the excitement and enthusiasm of the material. I can only imagine how much fun it would've been for the professional performers who were being paid to play this ridiculously delightful music. For those unimpressed by the central leitmotific ideas, those of which prove to deliver little originality for the ears, many should be able to sit back and enjoy the fast-paced and intelligent compositions for percussion, woodwind and piano; as a flute player myself, I always appreciate it when a composer is willing to venture outside of compositions intended primarily for string and brass sections, the rest of the orchestra relegated to more minor of roles (this is something I've noticed most vividly about scoring). Balfe, a man whose versatile writing style (when he's on his game) lends itself to far-reaching arrangements, utilizes his diverse skills to great effect here, allowing the entire orchestra to shine all throughout this tame fifty minute long album. Whilst he is willing to slow things down for a more emotional effect, his energy and zest within the action cues are where he shows his true capacity for intelligent writing. The pace, use of various ethnicities and frantic energy applied for the action material is reminiscent of John Powell's dazzling efforts for How To Train Your Dragon 2 earlier this year, which featured some of the strongest action writing of the past twelve months.

There are moments where the recording is less than admirable; microphones obviously having being moved further away between certain pieces, leaving a more strained and reverb-filled result. It's minor, but it does result in the requirement of having to turn the volume up partially (the horror!). Fortunately, this only occurs but a few times towards the opening of the album, the rest of the running time proving to be a solid listen on the technical front. Where Balfe has improved from prior efforts, most notably and recently his work for the atrocious television series The Driver which featured some hideous uses of synthetics, is his ability to restrain himself in regards to the electronic component of his compositions. There are moments of undeniable synthetic implementation, but neither are they overpowering nor at all so immensely irritating that it becomes an issue. His subtle use of that form of instrumentation slides under the radar much of the time, and never invokes a sense of desaturation from this rich and vibrant score; a welcome change of pace from the composer. 

Ultimately, apart from the familiarity of much of the album and the less impressive slower moments, Penguins of Madagascar is a rewarding and highly enjoyable induction into the Lorne Balfe canon; a canon populated with more accomplished releases than many would care to admit. The repetition of the central thematic concept all throughout the running time will undeniably irritate many of the listeners, but the composer's meticulous attempts to provide variation prove effective, as I never truly found myself growing bored of the blatant recycling of the same leitmotif, like I did with Brian Tyler's good but disappointing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles earlier in the year. Balfe's fast-paced writing instills a level of constant vitality that is appreciated all throughout, and transcends the genericisms of the album, and allows for fantastic replayability, something that has become more rare as the year has waged on. Whilst it fails to do anything that we haven't seen before, it succeeds in providing thrills, spills and numerous flute and woodwind trills (musical puns: I apologise!). Penguins of Madagascar absolutely comes recommended from myself, as long as one takes into mind that Balfe's writing isn't exactly unconventional. You can purchase The Penguins of Madagascar on Amazon or iTunes, here and here


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