REVIEW: Penguins of Madagascar [2014]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG | Runtime: 92 minutes | Release Date: November 26th, 2014 (USA)
Studio: DreamWorks Animation / Twentieth Century Fox
Director(s): Eric Darnell & Simon J. Smith
Writer(s): John Aboud, Michael Colton & Brandon Sawyer / Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath (characters)

“Venetian blinded again”

Is Penguins of Madagascar a total cash grab? Not quite. It’s one thing when a studio hones in on a successful franchise’s periphery character and deems it worthy of a spin-off by pretending it possessed enough depth to carry a feature of its own, but it’s another when the filmmakers embrace its appeal and simply expanded upon that element. Puss in Boots was painted as a hero to begin with and supplying him an origin wasn’t a giant leap past Shrek. The “cute and cuddly” penguins from Madagascar, however? They were a one-note bit of pure hilarity. You start giving them backstory and emotional heft and you risk ruining their knee-jerk, absurd appeal. If you keep them insane, reliant on luck, and completely random—well, you may just get away with a farcical laugh able to sustain 90-minutes.

Credit directors Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith along with writers John Aboud, Michael Colton, and Brandon Sawyer for realizing this truth and not succumbing to outside inference hoping for more. These flightless birds have a specific purpose and we love them for it. Skipper (Tom McGrath) goes overboard in his controlling orders, Kowalski (Chris Miller) supplies the voice of reason, Rico (Conrad Vernon) delivers chaos when called upon, and Private (Christopher Knights) looks on in confusion after doing something he shouldn’t. They constantly bite off more than they can chew and without fail find themselves unscathed and perhaps even victorious by the end. So when we’re reintroduced to them flying the coup after Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, it comes as no surprise that they’re readying to invade Fort Knox for cheesy snacks.

I honestly wouldn’t have minded watching the quartet continue to engage in such ludicrous acts of faux espionage over and over. Hell, I assumed that’s what I signed up for when buying my ticket. The appearance of Dave the Octopus (John Malkovich) and his nefarious cackle of a revenge plan serendipitously targeting our heroes proved a bonus. And his penchant for speaking in celebrity name puns whenever ordering his henchmen around added a gem of a comedic device I might have missed if my girlfriend didn’t ask whether she’d heard the first two instances correctly. She did and it’s both simple and hysterical each time. You almost don’t want Dave’s plans to get thwarted since his crazy is as good as the penguins—providing the “smarts” of Skipper and cluelessness of Private in equal measure.

He is the bad guy, though, and our feathered friends must do what they can to save themselves and their species. They even acquire a bit of unwanted help thanks to the elite animal squad coined The North Wind. Led by Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch) and including its own menagerie of warped personas via the manic Short Fuse (Ken Jeong), cold Eva (Annet Mahendru), and lovable brute Corporal (Peter Stormare), they have been tracking Dave for months only to discover Skipper and the boys beat them to the punch at getting an inside look at his operation. Too egomaniacal and hubristic to accept help, the penguins quickly find themselves butting heads until being deliberately separated from the professional spies. This allows for more shenanigans as well as a race to see who can take down the villain first.

This means we receive a healthy portion of intelligence agency gags through expensive gadgets and covert plans from The North Wind along with actions reminiscent to “Pinky and the Brain” for Dave. The latter is sort of an amalgam of those two characters because while he wants nothing more than to take over the world one species at a time, he struggles to use a computer on a level higher than your eighty-year-old grandparents. As for our heroes, it’s more of the same delivered with enough wit so that the joke never dies on impact. There’s some schmaltzy, plot-driven stuff such as Private attempting to become a valued member of the team despite Skipper always laughing at him, but enough nonsense arrives by the end to counteract any blatant displays of sentimentality.

The result is simply a whole lot of fun and frankly that’s all you could really hope for from a spin-off of this ilk. With the tone remaining consistent and the bad guy (Malkovich is pure gold) ratcheting up the silliness quotient, Penguins of Madagascar is pure entertainment. The plot’s weak, its resolution outlandishly crazed, and the jokes juvenile enough to land with audience members of all ages, but it’s fully aware of each knock. I think Dreamworks has really evolved this series over the years with the main Madagascar storyline increasing in its appeal every installment—a fact directly proportionate with how off-the-wall the writers are willing to go. It will help if you’ve enjoyed this foursome’s antics previously, but you should leave the theater with a smile as long as you don’t expect too much.

[1] Left to Right: Private (voiced by Christpher Knights), Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath), Rico, Kowalski (voiced by Chris Miller). The Penguins of Madagascar © 2014 Dreamworks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Agent Classified is the leader of the North Wind — a spy agency that helps animals in need. Photo Credit: DreamWorks Animation
[3] During a top-secret mission, Skipper (voiced my Tom McGrath) takes a break to enjoy his favorite cheesy snack.

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