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Penguins continue to conquer Hollywood

Penguins are anything but rare birds in Hollywood these days.

In the footsteps of "March of the Penguins" and "Happy Feet," the wave continues with the recently released "Farce of the Penguins" spoof, the DVD release of 1995's animated "The Pebble and the Penguin" and the upcoming summer cartoon "Surf's Up," about surfing penguins.

The penguins that instigated the action in "Madagascar" starred in their own cartoon short and are being developed as lead players for a cartoon TV show.

Even Robert Altman's final movie, "A Prairie Home Companion," featured Garrison Keillor telling a droll joke about the birds: "Two penguins are standing on an ice floe. The first penguin says, 'You look like you're wearing a tuxedo.' The second penguin says, `What makes you think I'm not?"'

When asked why the joke is funny, Keillor replies, "I guess because people laugh at it."

The same somehow holds for penguins. People laugh at them and love them unconditionally. Why? Just because they're funny and lovable.

"They're an anthropomorphic gift. A little kid dressed in too many winter clothes, walking around and falling in the snow," said Chris Jenkins, producer of "Surf's Up," which hits theaters in June.

Penguins have a big day Tuesday, when "Happy Feet" debuts on home video, along with the high-definition Blu-ray and HD DVD disc premieres of "March of the Penguins," the Academy Award-winning film that was a surprise documentary smash.

That film prompted comic Bob Saget's parody "Farce of the Penguins," which came out on DVD in January. Tuesday's DVD release of the 1995 animated flick "The Pebble and the Penguin," with a voice cast led by Martin Short, also is part of the penguin proliferation.

"They're taking over the world," said Jeff Bridges, who provides the voice of a has-been surfing penguin in "Surf's Up."

"They got a great publicist, man. It's all going to be penguin movies from here on out. No more actors. It's just going to be penguins taking over," added Shia LeBeouf, who offers lead vocals for the movie as a surfing prodigy mentored by Bridges' character.

People have always been charmed by penguins because they see a lot of themselves in the birds, the way they walk upright and congregate in communities like humans hanging out on street corners.

Penguins' human traits have made them popular with animators over the years. A classic cartoon short has Bugs Bunny exasperated with a tiny penguin that comes into the rabbit's keeping. A silent penguin thief touches off the action of the "Wallace & Gromit" cartoon "The Wrong Trousers."

"They're kind of a miracle of design. Probably a lot of artists, animators are attracted to that," said Zooey Deschanel, who provides the voice of a lifeguard penguin in "Surf's Up." "They just look so cool."

"Happy Feet" director George Miller thinks the cold-weather fowl have become so popular in Hollywood partly because of a wave of innovative documentaries coming out of Antarctica in the last 15 years or so, including 1993's "Life in the Freezer."

Better survival gear and cameras allowed documentary crews to spend more time chronicling the habits and rituals of penguins, with the resulting films helping to push the birds into the audience's consciousness.

"How long it's going to last, are we at the end of it or the beginning of it or in the middle, who knows?" "Surf's Up" co-star Bridges said. "This movie started four years ago. There was no `March of the Penguins' or `Happy Feet.' It was just kind of in the air."

After seeing "Life in the Freezer" about eight years ago, Miller began formulating the story of "Happy Feet," about an emperor penguin voiced by Elijah Wood that, unlike his singing kin, cannot carry a tune but can dance up a storm.

Anatomical practicalities give penguins many of their human qualities, Miller said. Their bulk insulates them against the cold. Their wings evolved as flippers in the water, so they resemble arms. Their black hue helps them absorb more heat to stay warm in water, while their white bellies camouflage them from fish on which they prey, so they end up looking like little people in formal wear.

"All those things go toward them reminding us enormously of ourselves," said Miller, whose "Happy Feet" won the Oscar for animated films. "They are like humans. It's very easy to turn them into fables. In our movie, the penguins themselves represent humans, and the humans are indeed the aliens."

The question for the makers of "Surf's Up" is whether the market can bear another animated penguin flick. Audiences last year seemed to tire of the wave of cartoon tales featuring cute talking animals. The films that worked generally were ones that distinguished themselves from the pack, such as "Cars" did with talking autos and "Happy Feet" did with its musical numbers and realistic animation.

The "Surf's Up" filmmakers incorporated a joking "Happy Feet" reference, when LeBeouf's character says early on that he's a surfer, he doesn't sing or dance.

"We figured what the heck. It's out there. Let's make a nod to it right at the beginning," said Ash Brannon, who co-directed "Surf's Up" with Chris Buck.

Doubling up on similar scenarios is not unusual in Hollywood. In 1998, the insect cartoons "Antz" and "A Bug's Life" both found eager audiences, as did the dueling asteroid adventures "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact."

This summer's rodent animated comedy "Ratatouille" follows last fall's rat tale "Flushed Away."

"I don't like them to lump us together with another movie," said Brad Bird, director of "Ratatouille," a comedy about a rat who longs to become a chef in a French restaurant. "You show any 12 minutes from the movies, I think you'll see we're an extremely different movie" than "Flushed Away," the story of a pampered pet mouse trying to survive among sewer rats after he's sucked down the toilet.

Likewise, crowds should have little trouble distinguishing "Surf's Up" from "Happy Feet." "Surf's Up" is done as a mockumentary in the style of "This Is Spinal Tap," with the penguins seen in improvised interview segments amid the buildup to a surfing competition.

"It all comes down to how involving the story is, because from what I've seen of the trailers on `Surf's Up,' it's such a different kettle of fish, or kettle of penguins," said "Happy Feet" director Miller. "If the story's strong and the film enchants, it should not be harmed in any way by being yet another penguin movie."

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