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The Penguins of Madagascar

The four penguins from the animated “Madagascar” franchise made it their business to steal scenes from a zany zebra and a lovable lion in three hit films.

But their next mission will truly test their star power as they try to carry their own movie, “Penguins of Madagascar.”

“Penguins are cute and are underdogs,” says Eric Darnell, who directed “Penguins” with Simon J. Smith. “They have wings but they cannot fly. They are basically breakfast for leopard seals. But our four guys just don’t buy into that. They just go for it. That’s the message of the movie.”

That’s also the message of the flightless quartet’s foray into the solo spotlight.

They’re testing the waters for the pill-shaped Minions of the “Despicable Me” franchise, who will present their very own Minions (without Steve Carell’s Gru) July 10.

Already common in television, spinoffs from animated-film features are becoming increasingly popular with studios seeking familiar, audience-approved fare.

Will Arnett will return in “The Lego Batman Movie” in 2017. MGM is even working on a Pink Panther feature film for 2016 centered on the famed animated character from the Blake Edwards films.

They aim to join films such as 2011’s “Puss In Boots,” which earned plaudits and a half-billion dollars worldwide after spinning off from the Shrek franchise. Likewise, there’s 2000’s “The Tigger Movie,” starring Winnie the Pooh’s pal, which quietly earned $96 million worldwide, according to Rentrak.

“These are supporting players that got laughs,” says animation historian Jerry Beck. “Audiences want to see these characters we know. But creating a background and mythology is a challenge for filmmakers. If it doesn’t work, it can be a disaster.”

The key to success starts with instant enthusiasm. The mischief-loving Minions made a splash in 2010’s “Despicable Me,” then enjoyed increased screen time in 2013’s “Despicable Me 2.” Universal Studios now features a Minion Mayhem ride at its amusement parks in Orlando and Universal City, Calif.

The spy penguins were almost cut out of 2005’s “Madagascar,” which featured the zebra Marty (Chris Rock) and the lion Alex (Ben Stiller). But director Tom McGrath, who still voices tough-talking penguin leader Skipper, says the characters became sudden standouts and are now “part of the ‘Madagascar’ DNA.” They’ve earned their own Nickelodeon series and holiday specials.

“It finally became clear they could sustain their own full-length movie and still be funny,” McGrath says.

Big-name voice stars are key in the new projects. Jon Hamm and Sandra Bullock will voice a villainous couple in Minions. And “Penguins” features Benedict Cumberbatch as a secret-agent wolf and John Malkovich as an evildoing octopus.

Animators also have the luxury of time and retinkering to flesh out the story.

In “Penguins,” they needed it, because the Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private penguin characters had just eight minutes of screen time combined in the three “Madagascar” films.

“The spell was already cast in those movies, but it’s a blessing and a curse,” Smith says. “You have to take people on the journey where the penguins are center stage.”

The filmmakers spent three years revamping whole scenes to find that right character balance.

“Making a comedy with heart is a serious business, finding what these penguins and audiences care about,” Smith says. “You take them on an action-packed penguin adventure. But you cannot break that spell that makes them so lovable.”

Bryan Alexander is a staff writer for USA Today.

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