Film Review: ‘Penguins of Madagascar’ is Fun, But Hardly Innovative

Caution: This review contains spoilers.

It seems to be a week full of fowl creatures gastronomically (for the carnivores) and cinematically. The birds in question are the turkey, mockingjay, and penguin. (“Birdman” could be applied to the second category, too.) It’s expected that “Mockingjay Part 1” will score the top spot at the box office once again, facing little competition from “Penguins of Madagascar.” The latter film was just released by DreamWorks Animation as a spin-off from the “Madagascar” series.

The story begins by showing Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon), and Private (Christopher Knights) in the early days when they first met. Right from their start as a group, these hilarious penguins wanted to be different and embrace the adventurous side of life. Adults will probably be amused by the animated cameo by Werner Herzog, working on documentary about penguins. There’s a joke in there about authenticity and keeping things interesting as the crew pushes our little heroes off a cliff, sending them on their journey to the world of zoos and circuses.

Sometime after escaping the circus, the penguins are celebrating Private’s 10th birthday. Private isn’t too excited about the birthday schedule, comprised of breaking into a secure government building, until they reach a fantastic snack machine with cheese puffs. Unfortunately, they’re captured by Dave (John Malkovich), a devious octopus bent on revenge for being long outshone by the cuteness of penguins. They escape Dave’s submarine with other octopi pursuing them through the Venice in an amusing chase sequence. Coming to the rescue is a super spy team, North Wind, led by the wolf whom Skipper refers to as Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch).

The penguins deal with two major problems. Firstly, Private always feels left out when it comes to getting big tasks; Skipper sees him as the youngest and the cutest in the group and little else. The other difficulty concerns Dave’s plot for vengeance: to use a green Medusa Serum to turn all cute penguins into monsters, so people will no longer get wrapped up in their cuteness factor. The film certainly makes good use of 3D effects and throws in clever moments and plenty of gags. Many of you may enjoy a few of John Malkovich’s lines with the celebrity names as he barks orders to the octopi. Perhaps the best one was “Kevin, bake on! We’re still going to need that victory cake.”

Benedict Cumberbatch is a strong addition to the cast, but he and Malkovich can do little to save “Penguins” from its glaring faults. It falls short of the bar set by other animated flicks because the plot is basically a recycled version of “Despicable Me 2.” By then, the super spy element had been already overused. Dave is like a rip-off of Gru when he disguises himself as a human mad scientist. As much as penguins are one of my favorite animals, they can’t compete with the flare and energy of the minions. Finally, the transformation from cute critter to monster was a dilemma in “Despicable Me 2,” except it occurred via injection instead of with a massive ray gun.

Still, the film is a vast improvement over the rest of the “Madagascar” franchise, as the penguins were always the most amusing characters in the series. If you feel a little disappointed by the time the end credits roll, don’t despair because you can find lovely penguin videos to watch online, such as the “Penguin Highway in Antarctica.” Looks like Skipper and the others could have had a great time with these other little guys.

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