Even before stepping into the movie theater, I was entertained. The thought of Benedict Cumberbatch voicing a James Bond figure in wolf form was entertaining; the thought of John Malkovich voicing the Bond villain octopus was enough to get my giggle started. And of course, this wasn’t my first meeting with the penguins: in the Madagascar franchise, they are loose cannons with border-line illegal backup plans and crafty tricks up their flippers. They also happen to have their own spin-off television show, so the decision to give them a movie raises some questions about how much penguin adorability audiences can handle. However, I happen to have an unhealthy obsession with feathered flightless birdies, so you can bet your behind that I sat mine down in that theater seat, questions be damned.
Penguins of Madagascar stars our familiar quartet of penguins: Skipper (Tom McGrath), the leader; Kowalski (Chris Miller), the genius; Rico (Conrad Vernon), the loose cannon; and Private (Christopher Knights), the cute rookie. They find themselves facing off against Dave the octopus (John Malkovich), who hatches an evil plan to rid the world of penguins. Outgunned by Dave, they join forces with the North Wind, a group of arctic animals led by Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch) that are dedicated to protecting all animal-kind.
From the get-go, this is not a movie that pretends that it has substantial plot and message. It teaches the audience that “appearances can be deceiving,” and has the unique follow-up message that “People like penguins because they are cute.” Penguins doesn’t try to be more. It proceeds with cheerful disregard for its Swiss cheese-like plot holes and it inserts as much humor as it possibly can: each moment is filled with crazy situations, cliché wordplay, fart gags, and pop culture references. I respect a kid’s movie for replacing heartfelt sentimental speeches for seriously entertaining puns like “Hugh, Jack, man the ship!” “Drew, Barry, more power!” and “Kevin, bake on!”
The result is a cartoon movie that is playful for the sake of play: it knows the ridiculousness of its plot and characters, but accepts it and runs with it. Take the opening sequence. It begins with a documentary-style narration by Werner Herzog, who observes the happy penguins “tumbling on their chubby bum bums” and giggling amongst themselves. His documentary crew eventually punts our star baby penguins off a cliff with a sound boom on purpose in order to produce some tragic, dramatic footage. Then there’s the chase scene: when Dave’s hench-octopi chase the team through Venice on gondolas, stilts, and mopeds, Skipper pays a mustached Italian man to play dramatic chase-scene music on his mandolin. The scenes are as visually ridiculous and hilarious as their description suggests. The entire movie is a mishmash of high-energy insanity, resulting in a piece that purely exists to entertain.
Penguins is certainly not without its faults. The sheer number of gags means that some hit high notes while others fall flat. In addition, the film’s primary characters lack the kind of entertaining tug-of-war conflict that the primary Madagascar characters exhibit; it relies instead on an outside foil to generate comic friction. By including the North Wind, the film certainly allows for a clean and polished contrast to the penguins’ frantic and hilarious improvisations. However, the members of the group lack the individual characterizations that would have truly made their presence great. Agent Classified shows a hint of personality when he faces off, snout to beat, against Skipper, with the former launching into a pompous monologue while the latter muffles it by eating Cheesy Dibbles. But what about the polar bear, the owl, and the seal? As a group though they aren’t entirely without humor; as their motto clearly states, “No one breaks the Wind.”
Overall, I got the experience that I wanted: one and a half hours of feathered antics. It brings back wonderful childhood memories of entertainment for sheer entertainment’s sake, without cumbersome attempts to interject huge lessons where there didn’t need to be any. No, Penguins of Madagascar succeeds in all that it attempts: a cute backstory (yes, the birds were as crafty as chicks as they are now), and a crazed adventure that was worthy of their lead characters’ insanity. This is a movie that no one asked for, but that cinema is not worse off for having.
Grade: A –
As frantic and fun as our feathered friends