Noted science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon coined an adage: “95% of everything is crap”. He originally uttered the phrase in response to the perennial accusations that his chosen field, Sci-Fi, turned out a lot of trash and only occasionally produced memorable, complex works, and thus should be considered something less than more classical literary fair. What his response astutely points out (and what all this has to do with a certain lovable penguin) is that real gems are few and far between in any vein of human creativity, that for every Crime and Punishment, there’s a thousand self-serious tomes with little to say and for every Citizen Kane, a thousand prestigious productions whose drama falls flat. Pointing out Sci-Fi’s lousy batting average without admitting the same to be true of poetry or ballet is an easy way of marginalizing a mode of expression you ignorantly disdain, and it’s a familiar refrain; people continually do the same with comic books, various “low-class” genres of music and, of course, children’s programming.
In line with Sturgeon’s Law, as it is often referred to, many children’s television shows are pure drivel. They strive, rather appallingly, to do no more than keep the little buggers distracted with bright colors and wacky noises. But then there’s that 5% -- the type of show that makes you pity anyone who merely assumes that since it appeals to children it must also be idiotic. Take the stop-motion cartoon Pingu, a British-Swiss production created by the German animator/director, Otmar Gutmann; now here’s a program that any human being, including newborns (and some of the smarter dog breeds as well), can follow on some perceptible level. But while the tales of the young titular penguin and his family and friends may be simple (their usual five minute runtime rarely contains much of a plot), they’re brought to life with such skill and such heart that they should also be able to entertain and perhaps even move just about everyone, regardless of age.
A big part of why the show is so good, and also why it’s such a success in over 150 countries around the world, is that it gets down to the basic levels of what we humans find so alluring about watching images move and hearing them speak: delighting in small, telling gestures and breaking down language into pure verbal music. The expressivity of the characters can telegraph so much with so little, which is only made possible by a deep understanding of what makes film work as a medium.
In much the same way that film was in fact a more global art form in the silent era, before sound came and brought all those language barriers with it, the visual half of Pingu’s international appeal is that the character’s movements and facial expressions tell their story with such naturalness and timing, giving the impression they are actually imbued with life. This effect was the result of endless, painstaking work. Stop-motion animation, and this type of “Claymation” in particular, is always a labor intensive process. Gutmann and his production company, Trickfilmstudio, always placed a high premium on quality control, from his first short in 1986 through 157 episodes and a few specials, a tradition that continued after the creator’s death in 1993. “Gutmann immersed himself totally in the private world of ‘Pingu’,” observed journalist Silvio Mazzola, “He identified himself with this comical creature to such an extent that by means of the fresh and childlike gestures and movements of the cartoon figures, he succeeded in portraying the characters in a credible way”.
Even in a medium long since accustomed to using dialogue, Pingu has characters “talk” in such a way that speakers of any language, or infants who are just learning how language works, can understand them. Pingu and his cohorts don’t actually use words at all, but rather utilize a series of noises that function as something of a universal language. Created by Italian voice actor Carlo Bonomi, who had a life-long fascination with invented tongues, Pingu’s chatter is often speculated to be some combination of existing dialects, but in reality is entirely fabricated. “It’s a feature of the most sophisticated imaginary languages that when you listen to them, you think you hear words you recognize…” explains Tony Thorne, Director of the Language Center at King’s College, University of London. “Penguinese has a complex intonation pattern – intonation is the ‘music’ of speech with its changes of pitch and tone, its rise and fall…Other features which testify to its authentic effects are the fact that longer stretches of dialogue speed up and slow down just as they do in the real world, and pauses and hesitations mark out the meaning-sequences that are represented by sentences in nearly all languages.” Pingu and the other characters even reuse certain sounds as greetings or other common exchanges, meaning that beyond giving off the impression of speech, Pingu can also, to an extent, be deciphered, a task which obsessive fans have taken upon themselves in chat rooms and on message boards.
But while examining the mechanics which make the show work is rather interesting academically, there’s really no need for it. Just be thankful they’re there and sit back and enjoy simple stories wonderfully told through the ineffable magic of sound and vision. 95% of everything maybe crap, but with art this well-crafted and lovingly realized, 5% is all you really need.
NOTE: Though it didn’t seem especially pertinent to the article above, I can’t leave you without imparting this little nugget: in 1989 David Hasselhoff released a Swiss only single called “Pingu Dance”, a small portion of which was eventually used as the show’s opening theme. What you won’t hear in that introduction though are goofy lyrics and singing. Those are only in the full version which interested masochists can find here.