Let’s not beat around the jungle. Madagascar has had something of an uneven track record across its various sequels (number four is in the works), but it has had one constant: King Julien, the wonderfully deluded leader of a tribe of lemurs.
DreamWorks has never been one to shy away from spin-offs, from Netflix’s upcoming How to Train Your Dragon series and seasonal shorts (also on Netflix – featuring Shrek and the Madagascar crew) to Despicable Me’s solo outing for its minions. And so, as the franchise’s killer penguins venture into cinemas for Christmas, it’s no surprise that King Julien should get his own show streaming just in time for the holidays.
All Hail King Julien takes us back to the beginning of the lemur’s ringed tale, as his cowardly uncle (Henry Winkler – given nowhere near enough screentime) abdicates in the face of a prophecy that the carnivorous foosa will kill the one who wears the crown. In steps Julien, whose only ever wanted one thing: unconditional universal adoration.
It’s a simple joke – and, to be honest, that’s all there is to Julien. It’s been primarily down to Sacha Baron Cohen’s manic vocal performance (and a heavy use of I Like to Move It) that he’s made such an impression on audiences. On the small screen, though, Sacha’s been replaced by Danny Jacobs and, apart from one brief appearance in Episode 1, I Like to Move It is nowhere to be heard. Can the king still command our funny bones?
Fortunately, for DreamWorks, the answer is yes. Unfortunately, for viewers, that answer’s followed by “just” in big, bold letters. The script swiftly realises its lack of character, making up for the shallow plots (one sees Julien take the throne, another sees him concerned about his lack of popularity, and so on) by stuffing the series with sub-characters and constant gags.
The jokes themselves are wildly hit and miss, a frenzy of slapstick and silly voices designed to keep even those most deficit of attention spans hooked. There’s Clover (India de Beaufort), the aggressive head of Julien’s security, who spends the entire time on the edge of a killing spree. There’s Maurice (Kevin Michael Richardson), the wise-cracking sidekick, who knows more than his boss. And there’s Mort (Andy Richter), who squeaks nonsense and hyperactive happiness at a very high pitch.
Without the usual cast to deliver the manic material, though, it occasionally drags. But the actors have some familiarity with the roles, thanks to their previous experience working on Madagascar video games – a track record that gives you an idea of what kind of quality to expect. Indeed, the visuals are colourful enough but far from dazzling, especially when compared to their big screen counterparts, who both sound and look more impressive.
But get used to the unfamiliar vocal chords and Jacobs proves an amusing lead, leaping between idiotic and even more idiotic with admirably little restraint. Richardson’s laconic patter, meanwhile, stands in well for Cedric the Entertainer. It’s telling, perhaps, that the only cast member to reprise their part is Andy Richter as Mort, who has the least to do with anything else on screen.
While parents will become exhausted by binge-viewing marathons (five episodes are released today with more on the way), every time the overtly eager, over-stuffed presentation begins to get old, All Hail King Julien lands a laugh, be it the random appearance of Masikura (Debra Wilson), a telepathic iguana, or Mort offering himself up to beasts as a tasty snack, dipped in watermelon. Children won’t get the frequent pop culture references, but they will giggle at the silliness.
With Amazon’s own Gortimer Gibbons also premiering today, the race to provide original kid-friendly content is well and truly on in the VOD world. DreamWorks’ original series comes across as slightly desperate, but there is something undeniably likeable about furballs frantically running around. All Hail King Julien won’t win it for Netflix, but for those craving more Madagascar post-Penguins cinema outing this Christmas, it’s a harmless stocking filler.
All Hail King Julien is available to watch exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription – with the first 30 days free.