Penguins of Madagascar successfully chucks everything stupid, boring, and routine about the Madagascar movies for a spinoff focusing on the best part: the penguins. In those earlier films about escaped zoo animals having a variety of wilderness adventures, the center stage went to dull neurotic creatures not cut out for jungle life. The fun happened in whatever a quartet of oblivious and absurdly confident penguins was getting up to. Scheming like a troop of superspies, complete with exaggerated karate poses and chopped Army Man voices, they bungled their way from one calamity to the next with an outsized sense of accomplishment and superiority. Of course, putting fun side characters in a movie all their own runs the risk of collapsing the charm with too much of a good thing. After a trial run in a cartoon series on Nick, here they’re in a movie that matches their loony goofiness and gives them room to stretch out. It’s a fast, often funny, very cute slapstick adventure.
In one of the first scenes, the four penguins literally rocket away from the end of Madagascar 3 into their own story. (“I was getting pretty tired of that song!” one shouts over the sounds of the previous series’ recurring “I Like to Move It” fading into the distance.) Leader Skipper (Tom McGrath), enthusiastic young Private (Christopher Knights), serious Kowalski (Chris Miller), and mute Rico (Conrad Vernon) just want to break into Fort Knox and steal one of the few remaining stockpiles of banned snack food Cheesy Dibbles. In the process, they’re pulled into a diabolical octopus’ evil plot to kidnap penguins from zoos around the world. The crazy cephalopod (John Malkovich, sounding a chummily megalomaniacal sort) is jealous that penguins get all the attention, distracting from the less adorable aquatic creatures. Fair enough, I suppose, but he’s overreacting in gleefully cartoony villainy.
So our hero birds race around the world trying to save penguins from certain doom. Every step of the way, they cross paths with The North Wind, an elite commando unit of snow-white arctic animals, a wolf (Benedict Cumberbatch, in one of his best performances, no joke), a seal (Ken Jeong), an owl (Annet Mahendru), and a polar bear (Peter Stormare). These critters are better equipped to fight supervillains. They have a plane, jet packs, tracking devices, tranquillizer darts, and a secret base in the center of an iceberg. It’s not hard to see why they’d be upset to find four bumbling amateur spy penguins doing about as well in the pursuit of stopping the octopus. The pros make perfect uptight foils for the weirdly effective nonsense the birds bring. Even better, there’s no way these penguins are learning a lesson or going through some pat character arcs. They remain blissfully themselves.
Stuffed with visual gags, rapid puns, and antic action, the movie has plenty of brisk, colorful cartoony pleasures. The scattershot globetrotting effectively collapses all sense of geography, going from New York to Venice to Madagascar to Shanghai and back again in no time at all. That’s part of the fun, high-energy whirlwind mock spy movie stuff done with waddling dim wits. Every stop is home to a manic action sequence involving a variety of animals and weapons deployed to mostly humorous effect. I liked when octopi swarmed a gondola driver and made him their puppet. That’s something you don’t see every day. Nor do you often watch a penguin punch an octopus in the face, or perform a slaphappy dance dressed in lederhosen. Sometimes, you just appreciate the novelty.
This is one of DreamWorks Animation’s most effective animal comedies, even though it arrives at a time when they’ve pivoted away from them towards animated adventures like Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. Directors Eric Darnell (Madagascar) and Simon J. Smith (Bee Movie) make a tight and uncomplicated feature that’s over in 90 minutes and lots of fun along the way. Added strange asides include: a documentary filmmaker voiced by Werner Herzog in Encounters at the End of the World mode, a shouting man-on-the-street reporter voiced by Billy Eichner, penguins in mermaid costumes (“You mermaid my day!”), and a villain’s habit of shouting for henchmen in ways that accidentally sound like celebrity names (“Drew! Barry! More power!”). It’s an enjoyable time at the movies, quick, pleasant, energetic, funny, and modest. I’m not complaining.