You'd think that a film called Penguins of Madagascar would have at least a scene or two set in Madagascar, but no: the title refers not to Charles Darwin's favorite island nation, but your seven-year-old nephew's favorite animated franchise. I'm not really a fan of Dreamworks' Madagascar movies, but they're all bright, colorful, fast-paced and contain one of the most annoyingly catchy theme songs of all time (the chipper “I Like to Move It”). The movies have a certain assembly-line quality, but they're made for hyperactive youngsters, not weary cinephiles who have seen too many movies. Kids seem to like 'em.
I'll admit that I like this spin-off just a tiny bit more than the Madagascar flicks, and I suppose that's partially because the endlessly confident little penguins are slightly more appealing protagonists than the fretful, neurotic mammals of the Madagascar movies. These flightless birds aren't easily distinguishable from each another, but they're still a lot of fun: a self-styled squad of action heroes who somehow manage to keep saving the day despite a complete lack of training or finesse. They leap into a dangerous situation headfirst, and exchange hearty rounds of hi-fives after their foolish plan inevitably works out just fine.
The story – such as it is – centers on the evil scheme of a villainous octopus named Dave (John Malkovich, Dangerous Liasons), who has developed the ability to disguise himself as a human scientist. How does he do this, exactly? Eh, who cares, he does it somehow. Anyway, it seems that Dave used to be a resident of the same zoo that once housed our four beloved penguins (voiced by Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon and Christopher Knight). Once upon a time, Dave was one of the zoo's most popular creatures, but then the penguins arrived and captured the hearts of the zoo's patrons. Dave hates penguins for being so adorable and lovable, so he's developed a serum that will transform all penguins into hideous, rabid beasts. So begins an extended conflict between octopi and penguins.
Dave is a silly villain with a sillier motive, but it's undeniably entertaining to hear the way Malkovich dives into the role. The esteemed thespian has been phoning in a lot of his performances in big-budget flicks in recent years (I'm looking at you, Eragon, Jonah Hex and Transformers: Dark of the Moon), but he seems to be having a genuinely good time uttering lines like, “The humans know me as Dr. Octavius Brine, renowned geneticist, cheese enthusiast and frequent donor to NPR pledge drives!” You can practically hear the actor giggling between takes.
The film's other guest stars make less of an impression. The penguins are eventually joined by another quartet of polar action heroes: a gray wolf (Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek Into Darkness), a polar bear (Peter Stormare, Fargo), a snowy owl (Annet Mahendru, The Americans) and a harp seal (Ken Jeong, Community). These four critters are members of an international spy agency known as “North Wind.” They're very good at what they do, and the movie wrings a lot of gags out of the contrast between North Wind's consummate professionalism and the haphazard antics of the penguins. This is mildly amusing, but the new characters aren't particularly interesting as characters.
What else? There are action scenes, and lots of them. This is a very busy movie, with a new crisis to deal with around every corner. The third act turns into a penguin-themed variation on Gremlins, with crazed mutant penguins running around causing mayhem. The solution to this problem is incredibly corny, but this is a movie with almost no regard for the rules of reality (but a great deal of regard for the rules of international box office hits – there's a lengthy detour to Shanghai that comes out of nowhere). I like the nifty little prologue in which Werner Herzog (Jack Reacher) pops up to parody himself for a few minutes, and there are lots of amusingly terrible jokes involving the names of various celebrities (“Nicolas! Cage them!”). It's fine.
Penguins of Madagascar
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Year: 2014