In the unreal early days of the pandemic, when it seemed foolish to try to comprehend the enormity of what we were collectively living through, a clay penguin reacquainted me with the clarifying power of gibberish. “Pingu” is a stop-motion children’s television show about the titular character, a penguin tyke who lives with his family in a little igloo village at the South Pole. Initially, the episodes appear to be light five-minute affairs about the small dramas of toddler penguinhood: Pingu spits his veggies into the toilet; a municipal penguin employee turns Pingu’s play area into a parking spot. But with a balance of farce and sentiment, the show also gestures toward some of early life’s more complicated realities — sibling rivalries, parental punishment and the loneliness of childhood. Created by the German animator Otmar Gutmann, “Pingu” premiered in Europe in the early 1990s and became a worldwide phenomenon; but unlike other global cultural crazes, the show did not need to be dubbed or subtitled. Nothing could be lost in translation because there was nothing to translate. Every “Pingu” character speaks the language of Penguinese, which sounds like Thai, Indonesian, Italian, something in between or something else entirely. Yet, despite the lingo’s seeming inscrutability, it is mysteriously — hilariously — comprehensible.
Take the following scene: Pingu finds himself caught between a whistling kettle, a ringing phone and his father gruffly dictating commands at him. His eyes dart around the room — kettle, phone, dad, kettle, dad, phone, kettle. The overwhelmed little penguin’s voice rises from confusion to panic to wails of despair, and he dissolves into a puddle of tears, covering his watery eyes with tiny flippers. Pingu’s mom then waddles into the frame, and with motherly resolve, takes the teapot off the boil, hangs up the phone in a nonnegotiable tone and gives the blubbering Pingu a pat on the head. We, of course, don’t know what any character has actually said. But based on body language, vocal inflection and a recognizable family dynamic, viewers intuit the scene’s meaning. Each of us conjures our own associations — in my case, maternal competence, paternal annoyance — to complement the story. The result, straddling the boundary between familiarity and strangeness, is the magic of “Pingu.”
The language of ‘Pingu’ is built upon the wisdom of children: The border between sense and nonsense is poorly guarded.
Rewatching the show after 25 years was an oddly unmediated, even moving experience, like dreaming or getting stoned. Emotions became sounds, language lost its hard edges and I recovered a small glimpse of childhood perception. My first brush with “Pingu” came when my Canadian cousin, a more cultured toddler than I, once brought a VHS tape of the series with her during a visit. I dimly remember watching an episode on a Sunday morning, while squeezed together in bed with my family. The show was a revelation. “Pingu” did not speak two languages, one to children, another to adults. There was no hierarchy of comprehension, no winking jokes meant to soar over young heads to keep the adults in the room vaguely interested.