What is it about penguins? From marching toward mating grounds in the Antarctic, showing off mad tap-dancing skills or ensuring military-style precision in operations on Madagascar, these little critters know how to captivate a cinema audience. They may not be the first creatures that come to mind when thinking of the wildlife Australia has to offer but in the sleepy Victoria town of Warrnambool these little guys are a very big deal. Oddball and the Penguins is based on the true story of a conservationist family and their rambunctious, remarkable Maremma sheepdog. Stuart McDonald’s film is a warm and big-hearted tale with just that right dose of magic, teaching valuable environmental and life lessons along the way.
Affectionately known as ‘fairy penguins’ our subjects here live on an island off the coast. Taking advantage of nighttime low tides, prowling, villainous foxes have decimated the population and if numbers drop below ten the sanctuary will be closed by the local council jobsworth. Emily (Sarah Snook) and her eco-team are at their wits end: what can be done to save them? Cue her old man, local organic chicken farmer, Swampy (Shane Jacobson). A Grizzly Adams type who’s a bit all over the place, he has an ever-present twinkle in his eye. We see his morning routine as he takes a cold outdoor shower, cracks an egg into his mouth and seeks counsel with his beloved hens before trying to track down his ditsy mutt, Oddball. In a script that is wilfully lighthearted – amid all the brutal penguicide – Swampy is reserved some cracking one-liners and egg-based gags. “That’d make an onion cry,” he says in response to a moment of flatulence from his canine pal who is one step away from the dog pound after numerous calamities.
One such calamity spoils the big day of Emily’s tourism developer partner, Bradley (Alan Tudyk, a stuffed shirt who means well, albeit in an irritating American way). Happenstance provides Swampy and his feisty granddaughter Olivia (Coco Jack Gillies) a way to solve everyone’s problems. For although Oddball is useless at keeping chickens in check he has a knack for penguin protection. Adventure, sabotage and council posturing abound from here on out until the all-important final count and decision on whether the sanctuary can stay open. Will there be a happy ending? Let’s hope so. Anyone who isn’t swept up by this gem of a moral story should seek counsel from the Tin Man. The sentiment is heavy handed at times but Oddball has a big old heart and ticks all the right boxes in terms of charming family fun.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens