Penguins of Madagascar

Posted by Joel Copling on November 26, 2014

There is something to be said for pure, unabashed, virtuoso fun that throws caution to the wind, and "Penguins of Madagascar" is an exhibition of the stuff. This is the type of movie in which the villain gives orders to his cronies by way of semi-unintentional puns involving celebrities' names ("Nicolas! Cage them!" and "Hugh! Jack! Man your stations!" and more from where those come). This is the kind of animated gem that features a Cheeto zooming toward a crucial activation button in slow motion, as said villain is being punched by a fist that has grown supernaturally out of the buttocks of one of our heroes. Basically, "Penguins of Madagascar" is awesome.

The aquatic, flightless birds of the title, one might recall, were the occasional comic relief in a trilogy of films about another gaggle of animals from, yes, the island Republic of Madagascar. They would pop in and steal whatever scene of which they were a part, aided by a successful TV series, and now, they have a standalone film to call their own. Needless to say, cue future sequels, which are definitely warranted on the evidence here. That film is a jubilant celebration of wackiness. Barely a serious bone exists in its body, but it is of no matter. The narrative pushes forward with abandon, and if the villain isn't particularly villainous, he makes up for it by having quite the cunning plan.

The penguins in question are Skipper, Kowalski, Rico, and Private (voiced by behind-the-scenes DreamWorks veterans Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon, and Christopher Knights), who escape a dull life of walking in a straight line with other penguins--and being so cute and cuddly that documentarians (including one here amusingly voiced by the great Werner Herzog in a brief cameo) repeatedly capture their natural habitat--to live on the edge as miscreants and doers-derring. Their latest mission comes from a figure from all of their pasts, though none of them remembers that Dave (voice of a game John Malkovich) was the jilted octopus whose repeated attempts at the spotlight were thwarted by this flippered quattro.

Dave has concocted a serum that might as well be called the MacGuffin Serum, and it is a canister of this that Rico, who speaks mostly in grunts of surprise or shock and acts as a dispense mechanism for any item that his disproportionately huge stomach region will hold, has stolen. The four cross paths with the North Wind, a group of agents whose leader's (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, who is thankfully not phoning it in) name is classified and whose other members are voiced by the diverse likes of Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, and Peter Stormare. They are also pursuing Dave for the serum, whose effects trigger the oddball, frenetic climax.

"Penguins of Madagascar" is not "about" anything particularly thematic, although there is a sweet sidebar involving Private's feelings of fundamental uselessness, having fourth-wheeled himself immediately after birth onto what was a trio that included only the other three. Dave, too, comes from an understandable place of jealousy, and at least his comeuppance is amusing, rather than the jarring type that a less likable confection could have concocted. There are a couple of missteps (A jaunt through the air, including into the cabins of multiple planes, though impressively mounted via one "take," is a bit sullied by the fact that at least one of the planes would have crashed horribly), but here is a film that takes silliness seriously and doesn't stop for the easily exhausted.

Film Information

Tom McGrath (Skipper), Chris Miller (Kowalski), Christopher Knights (Private), Conrad Vernon (Rico), John Malkovich (Dave), Benedict Cumberbatch ("Classified"), Ken Jeong (Short Fuse), Annet Mahendru (Eva), Peter Stormare (Corporal), Werner Herzog (Documentary Filmmaker).

Directed by Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith and written by Darnell, John Aboud, Michael Colton, Tom McGrath, and Brandon Sawyer.

Rated PG (mild action, rude humor).

92 minutes.

Released on November 26, 2014.