By Bob Garver
Dec. 1, 2014. The most noticeable theme that runs throughout “Penguins of Madagascar” is probably cuteness. It’s the penguin heroes’ greatest asset and the octopus villains’ biggest scourge. The heroes undeniably possess it, the villains possess it more than they think they do (I was delighted by the squeaking of their suction cups), and even toward the end, when some of the penguins are turned into “monsters,” they’re actually still pretty cute. They look a little sickly, but in a way that makes you want to nurse them back to health, like when you see footage of animals covered in oil after a tanker spill. My point is that this is an extremely cute movie, one that’s nigh impossible to resist.
The plot follows the scene-stealing side characters from the three “Madagascar” movies, who have always followed their own agenda anyway. We see their origins as they defy the pointless penguin tradition of marching nowhere in particular, and soon find themselves adrift in search of adventure.
We then cut to the end of the third movie, and the story picks up from there. They break free of the circus, break into Fort Knox, get captured by evil octopus Dave (John Malkovich), and get rescued by a team of arrogant Arctic animal spies called the North Wind. Our heroes set out to stop Dave and rescue all the penguins of the world before their polar opposites can do so and steal all the glory for themselves (assuming, of course, that either team can succeed).
The Penguins consist of bossy leader Skipper (Tom McGrath), brainiac Kowalski (Chris Miller), expert swallower Rico (Conrad Vernon) and lovable bumbler Private (Christopher Knights). Private is the “baby” of the group, as the others have known him since he was just an egg. They cased him to be hatched prematurely, and thus might be responsible for his somewhat stunted development. He’s a constant subject for ribbing by his older brothers, especially Skipper, and you can probably guess that it won’t be long until he goes missing and everyone realizes they should have been nicer to him. You’ll probably also guess that he’ll be the one to save the day. I’m not saying you’ll be right, just that the film definitely seems to be setting up for it.
The action and humor of the movie are both highly frantic. As far as the action, this sounds like it would be a problem because it would result in the film coming off as confused and unfocused. In reality, it keeps the pretty standard spy story from getting too comfortable with itself. In fact, the film is at its dullest in its third act when it becomes focused and has to wrap itself up in the conventional fashion.
The frantic pace lends itself better to the film’s humor. Simply put, the film has a lot of gags. There are bound to be some hits (I liked Skipper’s insistence that the team has popped up in Ireland when in fact they’re somewhere very different) and some misses (there’s an increasingly forced running gag where Dave yells orders to his henchmen and unintentionally forms the names of famous actors, which doesn’t work because the film doesn’t establish the names of the henchmen), but at least there are a lot of them, so there’s never any doubt that the film is working hard to please you.
“Penguins of Madagascar” doesn’t strive for greatness, though I did like it more than any of its “Madagascar” brethren. The kids at my screening really ate it up, and the adults seemed to enjoy watching it with them. And yes, I cracked up myself a few times. It’s a cute movie that makes a cute effort and is a cute way to spend an afternoon.
Two and a half stars out of five.
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