Can scene-stealers carry a movie? Or do some characters only work best in small doses? Even though they don’t have big-name voice actors, the espionage-minded penguins from the Madagascar franchise have consistently been more appealing than the central characters. They almost feel like they’re more for the adults in the audience and the kids can have the slapstick and fart jokes. Now Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon), and Private (Christopher Knights) have taken center stage, and their spin-off, Penguins of Madagascar, easily surpasses the first two Madagascar films (I didn’t even bother with the third) through its rapid-fire wit, cuteness, and offbeat jokes that will amuse kids and adults alike.
After seeing crack squad’s first mission, we cut to the present and see the Penguins squaring off against Dave (John Malkovich), a mad scientist/octopus who poses as a human by day, but by night harbors an evil scheme to get revenge on all the cuddly penguins who stole his spotlight at zoos around the world. The Penguins don’t even know or really care who Dave is, but he’s a bad guy, and a bad guy must be thwarted. Unfortunately for the Penguins, if they want to save the day they also have to deal with the North Wind, a secret spy organization led by the arrogant wolf “Classified” (Benedict Cumberbatch), who’s intent on letting his team of professionals take down Dave and making sure the Penguins don’t get in the way.
The Penguins are pure confidence, and what makes them impressive is that even though they’re not the sharpest knives in the drawer, they’re very good at their jobs. There’s nothing wrong with characters like Maxwell Smart or Inspector Clouseau who bumble there way into success, but the Penguins have a unique brand of getting the job done where they don’t find the easiest way, but they still earn their accomplishment. And while visually it’s a little hard to follow them when they’re among other penguins, their distinct attitudes always shine through. Skipper and Kowalski set the tone as their personalities have been pulled straight out of spy shows; Rico is more of an object than a character (if this were a video game, Rico would be what you used to hold and transport items); and then Private is the heart of the film as he wants to be considered a valued member of the team instead of just a cuddly mascot.
Directors Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith have put together a fast-paced, witty comedy with delightful bits of wordplay, misnomers, malapropisms, and misunderstandings while never feeling the need to play up or dumb down the characters. The Penguins aren’t geniuses, but what they lack in know-how, they make up for in panache, and that energy carries through the entire picture. A scene where the Penguins are plummeting to Earth wraps up all of the best elements—it’s all one shot, ducks and weaves through different obstacles, and shows how to the Penguins take care of business. The quartet plays by their own rules insofar as the family film genre will allow, and it gives Penguins of Madagascar a distinct personality as opposed to most other DreamWorks Animation movies that have no personality at all (I keep forgetting that Mr. Sherman & Peabody exists and that it was released less than a year ago).
The movie is constantly funny as the reckless Penguins and the snobby North Wind engage in spy hi-jinks, or “spyjinks” (TM, Patent Pending) that poke fun at the spy conventions while never being outright parody. A sense of playfulness runs throughout the entire picture, and even if the movie wasn’t constantly endearing and adorable, Penguins of Madagascar went straight to my heart with a running-gag of puns that I won’t spoil here.
The eponymous Penguins easily carry their own film, and it’s a shame it took so long to give them their own adventure. They are absolutely delightful characters, and their sense of humor effortlessly moves between cute, strange, clever, and can do so within the span of only a few minutes. The movie may not have much depth and at times literally relies on the power of cuteness, but that’s a mighty power when you know how to wield it. Penguins of Madagascar accomplishes its mission in style, and I can’t wait to see them go back into the field.