Review: ‘Penguins of Madagascar,’ starring Tom McGrath, John Malkovich and Benedict Cumberbatch

I have seen Dreamworks Animation’s “Madagascar” films and barely remember them, and I’ve never seen an episode of “The Penguins of Madagascar” television show on Nickelodeon (how has it been on for five seasons?!), so clearly I am not the target demographic for “Penguins of Madagascar,” the spinoff film meant to tide us over until 2018, when “Madagascar 4” is released. And yet there are still some jokes here that work for the casual viewer, some sly pop-culture references that aren’t too on-the-nose, and some solid (if not totally inspired) voice acting from the likes of John Malkovich and Benedict Cumberbatch. “Penguins of Madagascar” isn’t all bad, even if it doesn’t really make a case for why it should exist in the first place.

Because at this point, there are nearly 150 episodes of the “Penguins” TV show, and so what goes on in this film isn’t that groundbreaking or forward-thinking. The foursome of penguin friends have distinct, definitive personalities at this point, and those aren’t really going to change: authoritative Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath), clever Kowalski (voiced by Chris Miller), rowdy-yet-nonverbal Rico (voiced by Conrad Vernon), and adorable Private (voiced by Christopher Knights). The crisis they deal with in “Penguins of Madagascar,” from a vengeful octopus bent on transforming cuteness into ugliness, won’t have long-lasting effects, because why do anything to mess with a television show that is currently running and a future sequel that already has a release date?

So the urgency here is totally lacking, and “Penguins of Madagascar” doesn’t strive to be a film that has a real emotional message (in contrast to this year’s “Big Hero 6,” for example) or any kind of teachable moments (like Dreamworks’s own “How to Train Your Dragon 2”). Instead, get ready for a barrage of fart jokes (why else name a covert spy group the North Wind if not to wring every bathroom-humor opportunity out of it?), cinematic references (from “Planet of the Apes” to “Life of Pi”), and chaotic chase scenes that are, admittedly, a riot of color and design. As exhausting “Penguins of Madagascar” is because of the speediness of its storytelling, at least its pacing will keep younger audiences interested.

The film begins with backstory, presenting how Skipper, Kowalski, and Rico became friends and how they saved the cuter, younger Private from certain doom; over the years, they then traveled the world together, showed up in the “Madagascar” films, and became residents of the Central Park Zoo. All the while, they’ve operated like mercenaries or commandos, conducting super-secret missions that belie their sense of self-importance—until an infiltration of Fort Knox so they can obtain their favorite cheesy snack is foiled by Dave the Octopus (voiced by John Malkovich), an eight-tentacled, purple mollusk looking for revenge.

Dave has been resentful for years that when they were all at the Zoo together, the penguins stole his adoring crowds, and he’s come up with a plan to get rid of cutesy penguins forever: blasting them with a ray gun full of Medusa Serum, which will turn them ugly, deformed, and unlovable. (Yes, this is essentially the same plot from “Despicable Me 2,” where the minions were turned into out-of-control monsters.) Skipper et al. won’t stand for this, so they decide to take Dave down—until they’re undermined by the North Wind, a secret animal crime-fighting society. Led by a wolf who goes only by the moniker Classified (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), the North Wind have better gadgets than the penguins, more professional strategies, and an even more inflated sense of importance. Whether the penguins and the North Wind can actually work together is an important question, and whether they stop Dave in time is another.

How much more bare bones could the plot get? Not much. There is a sole female character who is supposed to be a super spy but only succeeds in being desired by Kowalski. Skipper wants Classified’s respect and Private wants Skipper’s respect, but that’s about all the self-reflection these characters do. And with all the visual gags (the fact that penguins can’t fly is used again and again) and action sequences (a chase scene through the canals of Venice is very nice, but a long stop in China feels like pandering to the international box office), there isn’t much time to explore any vaguely serious themes. Unless you count making fun of old people being confused by Skype, or joking about National Public Radio pledge drives, or mocking French tax law as sophisticated concepts. And if you don’t, well, there’s always Rico’s ability to eat and then regurgitate everything in sight!

The humor aimed at adults is certainly strange, the characters don’t grow in any way, and there are no stakes to speak of, but there are enough sight gags and silly jokes in “Penguins of Madagascar” to make children laugh. But a generation-spanning film, this one isn’t. 

 Rating: 2.5 out of 5