The March of the Pingu

When will America embrace the most popular penguin in the world?


I know there are parents out there whose toddlers never watch a minute of TV. I admire their purity and salute them as they sip nectar from a glass slipper on Mount Olympus. But my own parenting, and that of most people I know, takes place in a somewhat dimmer zone, the grubby lair of Whatever Works.

Mind you, it’s not like I just park my child in front of the TV and let her zone out. Whenever possible, I park myself next to her and zone out, too. After a long day of strenuous enrichment—the music class! The puzzles! The plowing through entire library shelves’ worth of books!—I can respect—OK, share—her desire to unwind with some moving pictures before bedtime. But as long as I’m the one with the fine motor skills to wield the remote, I plan to fend off the kind of children’s programming that, however wholesome, fills me with aesthetic despair. I’ll take the Zen-like simplicity of the Teletubbies over the plushy condescension of Barney, and the fearlessness of the My Neighbor Totoro girls over the mincing of Disney princesses.

During a session of companionable vegging out on the Sprout Kids digital cable channel, my girl and I discovered Pingu, the Swiss Claymation penguin who’s been an international sensation for more than two decades while remaining as obscure to American audiences as a Eurovision pop star. Created in 1986 by Swiss animator Otmar Gutman, he became the subject of more than 100 five-minute shorts, which were eventually broadcast in 150 countries around the world. Honored at children’s film festivals, marketed as a spokescharacter in UNICEF campaigns from Serbia to Peru, the mischievous Plasticine bird quickly became one of those phenomena, like Nutella or the ban on the death penalty, that everyone in the world seemed to get but us Yanks.

Pingu’s appeal as an export was no doubt due in great part to the fact that the show requires no dubbing or subtitles. Pingu and his family speak only in a babbling nonsense language known as “Pinguish” or, in some circles, “Penguinese.” Carlo Bonomi, an Italian clown and voice-over actor who did all the original voices without a script, was influenced by the commedia dell’arte tradition of nonsense language known as Grammelot. His characterizations are remarkably distinct and expressive, so much so that many viewers swear the penguins are really speaking Swedish, or Romanian, or Japanese, if they could just make it out. This classic episode, in which Pingu’s little sister Pinga hatches from an egg with the help of a penguin midwife, showcases the original series’ wit, its pleasingly spare animation, and its European-style openness about bodily functions—when the newborn Pinga has her first poop and Pingu is asked to clean up, it’s played not as a scatological joke but as a tender sibling moment.

In 2004, six years after the last of the original Pingu series was produced, Britain’s HiT Entertainment (the owners of huge children’s brands like Barney, Bob the Builder, and Thomas the Tank Engine) bought the rights to Pingu and produced 52 new five-minute episodes. Bonomi, now in his 60s, was deemed too old to do the voice-overs, and the job was given to two new actors, Marcello Magni and David Sant. HiT’s CEO said at the time of the acquisition that the Pingu brand was “totally unexploited” and that “by the time we have put Pingu through our infrastructure, we believe it will be substantially more valuable.”

That chilling corporate-speak didn’t bode well for Pingu’s future. Remember the Simpsons episode where a new cartoon character, Poochie, was invented to punch up The Itchy and Scratchy Show, and an executive in a board meeting requested that he be “Rastafied by 10 percent”? Well, I’d say the second-generation Pingu is only about 5 percent more Rastafied than the original. His opening-title groove has a hint of funkiness (as opposed to the ineffably twinkly ‘80s theme song), and he’s been known to go snowboarding with Robby, the family’s pet seal. The new voice work lacks the genius of Carlo Bonomi’s vocal stylings, but Magni and Sant speak more than adequate Pinguish. Most surprisingly, the post-2004 animators show real respect for the low-tech look of Pingu. They’ve preserved the matte Plasticine surfaces and nicely rounded shapes (after years of CGI animation, there’s something satisfying about seeing characters with actual volume), not to mention the austere simplicity of the sets (in our Ikea era, the Pingu family’s igloo looks like the height of Scandinavian design).

The problems Pingu faces are the daily dramas of childhood: Does Mom love my baby sister more than me? Do I really have to baby-sit this stupid unhatched egg? And why is this balloon so hard to blow up? And the five-minute running time is perfect for both toddler attention spans and parental guilt. You can accede to four consecutive requests for “Pingu! Pingu!” and you’ve still only watched 20 minutes of TV.

If you don’t get the Sprout Kids channel at home, the just-released On Thin Ice DVD from HiT Entertainment is a fun introduction to the character. But the best way to discover Pingu is through cruising YouTube. Not only can you join the debate between new-school fans and vintage-Pingu purists (they’re out there, posting withering comments in every language imaginable), but you can mine the rich vein of Pingu parody. Something about the penguin’s nonspecific dialect makes him a blank slate for ironic (and sometimes obscene) mashups, sampling (like this 1989 Pingu-themed rap by David Hasselhoff), and homemade Play-Doh recreations (some of them, like this gory Tarantino homage, decidedly not for kids).

Not to sound like a vintage-Pingu purist myself, but there’s nothing in the post-2004 oeuvre that approaches the mystery of “Pingu the Icicle Musician,” an early episode in which Pingu gets lost during a game of hide-and-seek and winds up in an ice cave, playing the suspended crystals like chimes. And don’t miss the oneiric strangeness of “Pingu Dreams,” in which our black-and-white hero is carried over the ice floes on a walking bed before coming face to face with a gigantic and terrifying leopard seal. If I’d seen this episode as a child, it might have scared the pants off me, but its magical mood would have stuck with me for the rest of my life. As soon as I’m sure she’s ready for it, I can’t wait to blow my little one’s mind.