Why Do the Penguins of the Madagascar Movie Work?

Written by Ryan Merriweather


If you’re like me, a married screenwriter with an active toddler, you spend a lot of time trying to find movies that are both entertaining and help improve your screenwriting skills.

2With all of the demands that are constantly being placed on screenwriters between managing your career, learning about screenwriting, spending time with your family, and actually writing balancing all of these things can turn into a juggling act rather quickly.

So how you do you manage trying to become a prolific writer while still making sure that your family gets the equal time and attention they deserve?

Well with this article, I hope to give you an example of how to increase your knowledge about screenwriting while still being able to make time for your family (or at least give you a good excuse to watch an animated movie without anyone realizing that you’re still working).

Recently I got the chance to step away from my hectic schedule and spent some deserved (and much needed) time with my family.

It was a Friday evening with nothing to do.

My wife was done grading and checking her students’ work for a summer biology course that she has been teaching online at the local college.

My active one year-old daughter was bored in her playpen after managing to play with every toy near her and reciting her ABCs until she invented new letters for the modern alphabet.

I had finished my script review for a production company that I’m currently interning with and found myself wondering how to keep busy for the rest of the summer evening.

It’s safe to say that we all had a random hour of free time that we simply didn’t know what to do with. So what do you do when your family is at home bored, you’ve eaten out all week, and don’t feel like going to a crowded movie theater? You turn on Netflix of course!

With over thousands of titles to choose from, I found myself endlessly surfing through movie title after movie title until I found…


Now you’re probably thinking to yourself, what could I possibly learn about screenwriting from watching four little adventurous penguins (Skipper, Kowalski, Rico, and Private)? 5

You could learn a lot from these four penguins, if you know where to look.

Produced by DreamWorks Animation, Penguins of Madagascar is the first major animated feature that only focuses on the four penguins from the animated Madagascar franchise.

With the tagline:

“Super spy teams aren’t born… they’re hatched”

DreamWorks Animation weaves together an adventurous tale about four penguins that includes mild action and some rude humor.

The film focuses on how this group of hilarious covert birds came together, became involved in global espionage, and joined forces with an undercover organization known as The North Wind to stop the villainous plans of an octopus named Dr. Octavius Brine (aka Dave) who is determined to destroy the world as we know it.


What does all this have to do with screenwriting?

7According to the critic consensus at rottentomatoes.com, “Penguins of Madagascar is fast and brightly colored enough to entertain small children, but too frantically silly to offer real film going fun for the whole family”.

As a screenwriter, I would have to wholeheartedly disagree with the above statement for three reasons.

To the untrained eye, the statement from the critics above would seem to quickly justify you skipping over this film or considering it just another kiddie movie. However, there are several reasons why this animated film works really well.

Why Does the Penguins of Madagascar Movie Work?

8 1) How the writers dealt with their backstory and exposition.

First, they eliminated exposition that wasn’t absolutely necessary or that wouldn’t become clear as the story moved forward.


Even from the first few moments of the film, the writers created scenes that not only explained how and why the penguins came together but they also placed them in scenes that contained conflict.


Secondly, they made sure to deliver exposition in scenes that contained some form of conflict.

When the penguins (Skipper, Kowalski, and Rico) decide to risk their lives to save a penguin egg that rolls away in the beginning of the film, their decision not only explains why they’re different from other penguins but it also reveals that the egg they saved turned out to be a baby penguin they named Private (who is pictured above right).

This scene sequence explains how the penguins became a four member team, each penguin’s role on that team, how they got involved in action adventures, and their code of ethics.

All of these themes are further explored and revisited several times throughout the rest of the film. So the writers setup their film perfectly in the first few scene sequences for their audience.

10 Thirdly, they waited as long as possible before providing exposition while always looking for the moment of maximum dramatic impact to reveal it.

 For example, this was done when John Malkovich’s character (Dave aka Dr. Octavius Brine) reveals his true identity to the penguins and the motives behind his character (more on this in the character arch section).

 Lastly, they used brevity. They understood that exposition doesn’t have to be a dramatic monologue. They only gave us the necessary information that was needed to move forward in the story.

  • 2) How the writers approached the character arc for each character in the film.

A character arc is basically the status of a character as it unfolds throughout the story or film.

A character usually begins the story with a certain viewpoint and after experiencing the events that take place in the story, that character’s point of view usually changes.

Every main character in this film experiences a character arc in one way or another. Whether it’s Dave (who learns important lessons about revenge) or Private (who learns where he fits into the Penguin team), each character leaves the story with a different viewpoint from the start of the film.


  • It fits into the Four Quadrants or Demographic Groups.


Lastly, this film works because the screenwriters worked to make sure that it would either fit into the Four Quadrants or covered the four demographic groups.

What are the Four Quadrants or Demographic Groups?

By the Four Quadrants or Demographic Groups, I mean that this film appeals to young and old along with males and females.

These are the four main marketing groups that are targeted.

By young and old, I mean both males and females who are over and under the age of 25. Writing from this perspective helps the writers make films for everyone.

Films that would fit into this category are films like (but not limited to) any Pixar film, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial.

These films include elements like visual gags and verbal humor along with emotional themes and high concepts.

Why should this be important to you?

This is important because your goal as a screenwriter should be to reach and affect the broadest audience possible while tapping into universal emotions of the human condition like the writers of this film have done.