DreamWorks’ four Penguins–Skipper (Tom McGrath), Rico
(Conrad Vernon), Kowalski (Chris Miller) and Private (Christopher Knights)–began
as minor comic characters in Madagascar
(2005), spoofing the clichés of the hard-fighting, jive-talking army units in WW
II movies. They’ve retained their popularity through the subsequent films and
TV, and are the focus of a CG feature that feels overblown, choppy and
effortful, but is only intermittently funny.
The Penguins of
Madagascar opens with characters’ backstory: how their company formed when
three rebellious chicks rescued the egg that contained Private. This elaborate
chase sequence reveals what the film’s weaknesses will be for the next 90 long minutes.
The threats feel too big and too elaborate, as the chicks slide over snow, fall
down cliffs, tackle leopard seals and trigger huge explosions. Many more chases
and explosions will follow. Many more.
The flashback ends with the quartet stranded on an iceberg,
then cuts to them at the familiar New York City zoo years later. How did they get
there? And when? Viewers will ask those questions again and again as the
Penguins visit Venice, Shanghai, Kentucky and Africa. Directors Eric Darnell
and Simon J. Smith leave the characters and the audience hanging as they jump
to seemingly unrelated sequences.
Scores of penguins have been mysteriously disappearing from zoos
around the world due to a nefarious plot
by Dr. Octavius Brine (John Malkovich, shameless overacting). Dr. Brine is really
Steve the Octopus, who lost his popularity as an aquarium attraction when cute
penguins appeared. Now he plans to take revenge by stripping penguins of their
cuteness and turning them into monsters. For one out-of-work cephalopod, he’s
managed accumulate an awful lot of weapons and equipment, including an outsized
submarine and a science lab.
The Penguins are hot on his trail when they clash with North
Wind, a super hi-tech undercover squad led by a supercilious wolf known as
Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch). They’re also out to capture
Octavius/Steve, further complicating an already needlessly tangled story. Does the
Penguins’ combination of bravura attitude, loyalty and paperclip gimmickry
trump the training and zillion dollar gadgetry of North Wind? Does Private get
his heroic moment, proving he’s not just a cute mascot? Is Steve’s plan foiled
in the nick of time? Does anyone need to ask?
Peguins offers a
few clever gags—the quartet sneaks across a black and white striped floor by
rolling and matching the pattern. But the fun gets lost in a plethora of
over-the-top chases, explosions and non-stop dialogue. After the success of the
Minions in Despicable Me, animated
bad guys require a crowd of gibbering servants. Steve has hordes of octopi-flunkies
who scuttle around on their tentacles, making funny noises. Their punning names
form a recurring shtick: When Steve commands one, “Nicholas, cage them!” it
gets a laugh. But by the time the 7th or 8th similar pun
occurs, the joke’s worn out its welcome.
It difficult to understand why the studio that made the How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda films, would bother with such
a minor, forgettable film.