Penguins of Madagascar (2014) / Animation-Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG for mild action and some rude humor
Running Time: 92 min.
Cast (voices): Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare, Andy Richter, Werner Herzog
Director: Eric Darnell, Simon J. Smith
Screenplay: John Aboud, Michael Colton, Brandon Sawyer
Review published December 2, 2014
Not being a fan of the Madagascar series, my expectations for this spin-off, Penguins of Madagascar, had been quite low going into it, and it basically met my expectations of coming away feeling like a waste of time for most viewers over the age of 10. It's basically just a 92-minute series of distractions with only the flimsiest of storylines to hang all of its many mini set pieces off of. It's the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy -- a colorful sugar rush that's nearly formless -- insubstantial without any nutritional value.
The film follows the exploits of four rambunctious penguins -- militaristic leader Skipper, brainy-sh Kowalski, dimwitted Private, and voiceless kook Rico. Who they are and why they seem to think of themselves as some sort of team of special agents seems to lack any real explanation within the course of this film. They're given an adversary in the form of wacked-out scientist who is really an octopus named Dave (voiced by John Malkovich, Cesar Chavez), who has some sort of weird plot to spray some green chemical on birds and covert them to mutants for even murkier reasons -- their consummate cuteness takes away from boring octopi at zoos and aquariums.
Even after a few Madagascar films and an hour and a half of following them in this film, I can barely tell the difference on sight about the penguins, just going with the flow in the hope I would get some things to find amusing in between the half-hearted effort to tie the various side jaunts together with a plotline. It is visually clever, I'll give it that, with a lot of really interesting animation and "camerawork", but all of this energy is clearly there to mask the fact that there isn't much of a movie underneath all of the cutesy character interplay.
Penguins of Madagascar is primarily aimed at elementary school-aged kids, and that's probably the audience who will find this to be pretty awesome. I'd love to say that its reach extends to be able to entertain all audiences, but many adults will find it a bit too frenetic and inane in a very insubstantial kind of way. They do make some attempts -- a Werner Herzog-voiced nature documentarian character won't make sense to anyone but adults, but it's not like anything truly amusing results from the nod. Jokes about NPR, riverdancing, and French tax laws are dropped in, but to what purpose? Parker Posey's name is mentioned, seemingly for no reason, but there are probably no kids, and probably few adults, who will even recognize who that is.
The filmmakers recognize that even the four penguins and a weirdo villain aren't enough to sustain the length, so we're treated to another major distraction in the form of another super-team of top-secret animal protectors (I think) called North Wind, who are ostensibly only in this film in order for DreamWorks to shoehorn in another set of characters they could spin off into their own movie in the future.
Used as scene-stealing spice instead of a full-course meal, the Penguins certainly have their moments of mirth to add. In the course of a 22-minute TV show on Nickelodeon, the bite-size nature could also hit the spot for a madcap diversion in the middle of a humdrum day. But as a full-length feature that is asking for you to give up your money and a good chunk of your free time, Penguins of Madagascar just doesn't have enough to keep it all together, clearly content to try to distract children with eye-candy and goofiness, knowing that it takes a lot of busy work to captivate your 5-year-old's miniscule attention span.
-- There is an extra scene during the end credits.
©2014 Vince Leo