They’d be such a nuisance if they weren’t so gosh darn cute. Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Benedict Cumberbatch and Academy Award nominee John Malkovich lend their voices to the animated spinoff Penguins of Madagascar.
Cast of Characters:
Skipper – voiced by Tom McGrath
Kowalski – voiced by Chris Miller
Rico – voiced by Conrad Vernon
Private – voiced by Christopher Knights
Classified – voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch
Short Fuse – voiced by Ken Jeong
Eva – voiced by Annet Mahendru
Corporal – voiced by Peter Stormare
Dave – voiced by John Malkovich
Director – Simon J. Smith & Eric Darnell
Screenplay – John Aboud, Michael Colton & Brandon Sawyer
Based on characters created by Tom McGrath & Eric Darnell
Producer – Lara Breay, Mark Swift & Tripp Hudson
Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor
In Antarctica, three young penguins, Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath), Kowalski (voiced by Chris Miller) and Rico (voiced by Conrad Vernon), rescue an abandoned egg from hungry leopard seals and set themselves adrift on an iceberg. The egg hatches and with no one else to tend to it, the three name the baby penguin Private (voiced by Christopher Knights) and set off for new land.
Years later, following the events of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, the penguins depart the circus and celebrate Private’s birthday by breaking into Fort Knox (not for the gold, though, but for the Cheesy Dibbles in the break room vending machine). However, while on their mission, they are kidnapped by Dave (voiced by John Malkovich), an octopus once adored at the Central Park Zoo, but now seeking revenge ever since the penguins stole his thunder the moment they arrived. Dave’s created a serum he plans to use on all penguins, but Skipper and his team – with the help of an undercover inter-species task force known as the “North Wind” – are determined to fight back.
While not bad, I wasn’t exactly a fan of DreamWorks Animation’s Madagascar series. Still, one of the best aspects to be found in those films were the scene-stealing penguins. The challenge for a film like Penguins of Madagascar is getting characters that were once supporting characters to effectively carry their own film. It’s easy to be a scene-stealer when you’re not required to carry the film, and being a scene-stealer doesn’t necessarily guarantee your own series will work. Joey Tribbiani was a great comical character on Friends, but that didn’t stop his own TV spinoff from sucking.
I gotta say, though, this film worked for me. With its simple and juvenile (in a good way) plot, as well as very few heavy themes, if any, it’s definitely meant more for the kids than the adults. But that’s not to say there isn’t any humor adults can enjoy (there’s a Werner Herzog joke at the beginning I got a kick out of), and as fast as the jokes come flying by here, it’s hard not to get caught up in the beautifully animated fun.
I think what’s most surprising here is that directors Simon J. Smith and Eric Darnell (one of the co-creators, along with Tom McGrath, of the characters) manage to make one slapstick joke, over-confident penguins turning out to be pretty clueless, work for 90 minutes, and part of the reason is that this film doesn’t dawdle. If one joke somehow doesn’t work, oh well, it’s on to the next one. It’s not as consistently funny as The Lego Movie, another 2014 animated feature with rapid-fire jokes, but what could’ve felt like a little of these tuxedoed birds going a very long way instead winds up working quite well.
Series veterans Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights and Conrad Vernon (who originally voiced Mason, but now takes over for John DiMaggio as Rico) all do a fine job holding the film together as what is essentially DreamWorks Animation’s own four-man version of the Three Stooges. It’s also fun to hear voice-work from John Malkovich and Benedict Cumberbatch, two actors mostly known for dramas, who are clearly having fun and treat the roles they’re given here with as much earnestness as they do with their heavier work. Cumberbatch and McGrath, in particular, have great back-and-forth moments together, and Malkovich has a recurring celebrity name-dropping gag that could’ve induced eye-rolls from the audience, but provides a bit of referential humor for the adults.
Lastly, I won’t be surprised if DreamWorks milks out a North Wind spinoff from this.
The overly silly tone may hold it back just a bit from carrying a universal appeal like the best that animation’s had to offer, but Penguins of Madagascar still provides plenty of fast paced, zany fun, all inside a gorgeously colorful world, for the kids, while containing just enough pop-culture references to satisfy the adults. Whether Skipper and Co. can carry on for a full franchise remains to be seen, but this ain’t a bad way to start.
I give Penguins of Madagascar a B (★★★).