Slapdash even by the somewhat low standards of franchise spin-offs, Penguins of Madagascar still manages enough belly laughs and chuckles for kids and adults to get the job done. This goofball spy flick with a quartet of wisecracking flightless birds might be funnier than the Madagascar films that spawned it, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a better overall movie. There are some inspired moments of comedic brilliance, clever jokes and sight gags, and even an unexpected and awesome nod to Streets of Fire, but it’s told in such a “devil may care” fashion that it’s hard to tell if the filmmakers are going for screwball anarchy or if they just slapped together the best of what they had kicking around. Either way, it works within its own meager parameters, but it’s not the greatest of animated comedies.
Picking up almost immediately where Madagascar 3 left off – after a brief Werner Herzog narrated prologue to flesh out some backstory – and just as quickly rushing into a completely different direction, the memorable comedic relief characters of Dreamworks’ second biggest animated franchise find themselves up against an adversary that knows them, but that they can’t recall. Leader Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath), brains Kowalski (Chris Miller), crazed demolitions expert Rico (Conrad Vernon), and loveable dimwit Private (Christopher Knights) are hot on the tail of Dave the Octopus (John Malkovich), a jealous sea creature and former zoo inmate who despises penguins for their cuteness who’s determined to kidnap all the penguins in the world for his fiendish gains. The waddling mates want to take Dave down themselves, but they have to compete with a group of animal do-gooders called The North Wind, let by an uppity, glory-hogging wolf (Benedict Cumberbatch).
There’s a ton going on in the screenplay, but no one involved seems to care if any of it remotely ties together. The penguins bounce around between major cities around the world with little rhyme or reason. It’s unnecessary for the film to have so many locations outside of just giving the background animators more to do (although a lengthy gag about getting Shanghai and Dublin inexplicably confused is pretty great). The North Wind doesn’t really add anything outside of a few awkward scenes where the leaders of the crews clash and more characters to market toys from.
Private has to prove himself as a vital and important member of the unit to his doubting superior. Kowalski has a crush on an owl working for their competitors. Rico eats a lot of random things. It’s all textbook, standardized stuff that offers few surprises, but this time any sense of pacing and plotting goes out the window in what feels like a calculated attempt to cram in as many jokes as possible. It’s kind of following the same template as the Anchorman films. It throws a lot at the walls, but no one is really stopping to see if any of it sticks, leading to a film that has its share of slow points where there are still jokes but they aren’t particularly funny.
Despite all that, Penguins remains more entertaining than not. There are some great set pieces, especially an increasingly ludicrous gondola chase in Venice and a dazzling (if scientifically impossible) bit where our heroes start swapping airplanes at 30,000 feet. The banter between the leads still feels fresh and unforced. Malkovich might be giving his most unhinged performance since Con Air as the sarcastic villain, and he sounds like he’s having a blast. Cumberbatch is a nice addition and a good sport as the chronically embarrassed professional rival. It moves fast – sometimes to its own detriment – but there’s worse things that could happen. At least it doesn’t dwell on its faults, and if one joke bombs, the next is only seconds away.
There’s not too much to talk about with Penguins of Madagascar except that maybe these characters can’t carry a film on their own, which is why it feels so padded out with a plethora of new faces. On TV it makes sense for the characters to be on their own in brief thirty minute bursts, but in feature form there’s only so much they can handle without a proper script to contain them. This film never comes across as the best case scenario for starting another franchise, but more like a quick on the draw cash in to kill some time before the eventual fourth Madagascar flick. If that’s what everyone involved here was going for, they succeeded with a just barely above average hit to miss ratio. If they wanted to make an actual film that could stand on its own, they should have spent more time at the drawing board.