"I don't think I like your attitude, vending machine... Or your prices."
Dreamworks' Madagascar franchise is its longest running next to the Shrek franchise, so it's only fitting that they would execute a spin-off involving a beloved side character, in much the same way they did with Puss in Boots three years ago. The quartet of super resourceful penguins from the films already have their own television show on Nickelodeon, so giving them their own film has a lot of advantages, namely a built in brand and following. The only real problem with Penguins of Madagascar the film, however, is that there's really no reason for it to exist. Apart from some funny jokes and inspired casting choices, the film feels like an unnecessarily protracted episode of the television series.
It's a good thing that the penguins themselves are entertaining enough to spend ninety minutes of your time with, but a meandering plot coupled with a ridiculously bloated climax truly makes you feel every one of those ninety minutes. Like so many bit characters who have taken the spotlight before them, the penguins' antics are amusing enough in small doses, but with no foil for their shenanigans, the film doesn't have a strong center—making the prospect of that Minions film they advertised before this movie even more daunting. Sure, there are worse ways to spend your time, and kids will eat it up with delight, but to turn any side character into the focal point of an entire film requires the kind of discipline Dreamworks has never really had in any substantial quantity.
The film's best bits come early, including an all-too-brief origin story for the quartet narrated by every child's favorite documentarian, Werner Herzog. I'm obviously joking as Herzog is clearly there for the amusement of the film literate parents in the audience, but when he utters the line "chubby bun-buns," it becomes apparent that this is the extent of the filmmakers knowledge of what to do with Herzog. The film as a whole would have been infinitely better had Herzog maintained his narration throughout the film, but after five minutes, he's gone, never to be heard from again.
His portion of the film covers the formation of the group we already know from their countless other adventures, but by the time the title is flashed on screen, we've jumped ahead to the middle of Madgascar 3, to pick up their side quest from that film. For those of you unfamiliar with the penguins, there's Skipper (Tom McGrath), the boneheaded leader, Kowalski (Chris Miller), the bluntly honest brains of the group, Rico (Conrad Vernon), the non verbal loose cannon, and Private (Christopher Knights), the timidly cute one. It's established early on in the film that Private wants to prove himself a valuable member of the team, and so the rest of the film is completely in service of that plot.
During a mission to procure Private's favorite cheesy snacks from a vending machine deep within Fort Knox, the penguins run afoul of Dave (John Malkovich), aka Dr. Octavius Brine, an octopus who has a convoluted history with the penguins. Dave's plan isn't so much world domination as it is getting everyone in the world to turn against all penguins, the way they turned against him, by transforming the penguins into ugly monsters that no one could love. In pursuit of Dave, for reasons that are never really explained in any satisfactory manner, is the North Wind, a group of cold climate animals that possess technological resources beyond anyone's imagination. Led by a wolf mistakenly named Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), they're trying to stop Dave as well, but view the penguins as more hindrance than help.
The only ace up the film's sleeve is uncovering Dave's real plan and then figuring out how exactly Private is going to prove himself to the others, which makes the numerous action sequences somewhat dull in retrospect. They're enjoyable enough, but every one of them goes on for so long, mainly because there's just not enough of a story here to which any time can be devoted. This is ultimately the film's biggest missed opportunity when you consider that nearly all of Dreamworks' output of late from the aforementioned Madagascar 3 to How to Train Your Dragon 2, and even this year's Mr. Peabody & Sherman, have all favored story over spectacle. In fact, the film that this shares the most DNA with isn't Puss in Boots, but The Croods: A simple premise with a clear endgame in sight loaded down with sight gags and drawn out action sequences that make the film just barely reach feature length.
The other shame is that there's some great voice work happening here, despite the actors not being given much to work with. All of the penguins' voice actors have been doing this for the better part of a decade, so they nail their characters, but Malkovich and Cumberbatch are forced to do the most they can with very little, including an interminable bit involving Malkovich giving orders that mimic the names of celebrities—i.e. "Nicolas, cage them!" It should also be noted that Cumberbatch has yet to learn the proper way to pronounce the word "penguin," still referring to them as "pengwings," though I'm not sure if it's intentional at this point or not. The jokes come fast and furious, however they only land about 40% of the time, making the film more cute than funny. Again, this is a perfectly fine goal for a film that goes direct to video, but cute doesn't really cut it on the big screen.
If you have little ones, they're going to love the film, but I also suspect they won't give it much thought after it's over. There's nothing unique, original, or terribly interesting that happens, and they'll notice that much of the film's climax is borrowed from Despicable Me 2. Their parents, on the other hand, will likely be less enchanted by it and its incredibly disposable nature. It's not a bad film, but it feels like a gigantic step backward for an animation studio that's really been doing its best work in the last few years, even within this very franchise. About the best thing I can say is that its homage to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is light years better than the one that Star Trek Into Darkness tried to pull off last year, and that's just about the strangest thing I've ever thought when leaving a kids movie.
GO Rating 2.5/5
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]