Full confession: “Madagascar” is hardly my favorite recent animated movie, and this half-hour series derived from it is equally headache-inducing — loud, exuberant and colorful, but seldom clever or funny. Young kids might get a charge out of the anthropomorphic animals, especially the lemur King Julien, who pretty much steals the show, albeit in a Jar Jar Binks kind of way. All told, it’s a savvy way for DreamWorks to keep the franchise alive, but more of a merchandising bonanza than a creative breakthrough.
Under the leadership of Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath), the four penguins view themselves as some sort of elite commando group, which explains why they keep adopting martial-arts poses. Working out of the Central Park Zoo, they are constantly irritated by wacky King Julien (Danny Jacobs). In the episodes previewed (with two stories in each half-hour), the penguins try to avoid Julien’s interference by launching themselves to the moon, and react to spooky noises that lead them to believe their habitat is haunted.
Things move pretty fast, which is good, because if you look closely there’s really not much meat here even for small fry — except, perhaps, monkeys speaking casually about the protocols of flinging poo; and a cat lusting hungrily at the thought of flightless birds.
Fortunately, the look is polished and the animation fluid, underscoring the advances that have made computer-generated work feasible on a TV budget. That said, similar production quality didn’t exactly save DreamWorks’ primetime foray into talking cage-bound animals with “Father of the Pride.”
On Nickelodeon, the expectations for “Penguins of Madagascar” will be considerably lower. Even so, the series has one attribute in common with its aquatic inspiration — inasmuch as it’s a cute-enough-looking bird that never actually takes flight.