The Penguins Of Madagascar review

DreamWorks Animation spins Madagascar's penguins out into a funny spy caper of their own. Comes with bonus Werner Herzog.

When it comes to the Madagascar series of films, there are the main characters, and then there are those scene-stealing penguins. They’re the secret bedrock of the series, the funniest characters in the bunch, the consistent comic relief who both ground the films and heighten the craziness of the shenanigans and goings-on. It’s not a surprise that the penguins have been the stars of most of the Madagascar spin-offs, including their own television series and a bunch of specials. It’s not a surprise that, with the Madagascar gang having wrapped up a pretty solid trilogy of entertaining flicks, that the first spin-off be given to the comic relief.

The penguins are the most entertaining characters in Madagascar‘s animal kingdom, so it’s not surprising that they’ve also got one of the most consistently entertaining film outings of the bunch, with a very clever set-up. Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon), and Private (Christopher Knights) – like the rest of the natural world – are sick of the Afro Circus song, so they load themselves into a cannon and fire themselves out of Brazil. That’s only the tip of the self-referential iceberg that lurks beneath the kid-friendly waters of Penguins Of Madagascar.

First and foremost, that’s the thing that’s going to differentiate Penguins Of Madagascar over every other family movie on the block at the moment. It appeals to its audience with a free-wheeling, fast-paced, fun adventure story which sees the titular penguins teaming up with The North Wind, a top-secret organisation dedicated to protecting the animals who cannot protect themselves (namely penguins and the like). They do that to square off against the villainous Octavius Brine (John Malkovich), aka Dave the Octopus, who has held a grudge against the cute and cuddly penguins since their first appearance in 2005. At every turn, Dave finds himself out-shined by the adorable penguins, and now he’s after revenge.

That’s only the loosest possible framework for a plot, which is good because it’s mostly a joke delivery system disguised as a movie. At every turn, there’s another reference, parody, pastiche, or pun designed to bring out chuckles from the adults, or goofy fun cartoon set piece designed to make the kids laugh. And make no mistake, this is a cartoon, unlike the average Pixar offering. Dreamworks focuses on fun, entertainment, and Penguins is definitely entertaining. Nothing lingers too long, and the script, from John Aboud, Michael Colton, and Brandon Sawyer is just stuffed full of jokes. If one doesn’t work, wait a few seconds and another will come along shortly. There’s still a message in there somewhere, but it’s subtle enough to where it doesn’t get in the way of the comedy while still being effective.

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Directors Eric Darnell and Simon J Smith are able to bring out some unique visuals thanks to the emphasis on more traditional cartoon physics. Dave does some impressive contortions while in the guise of Octavius, and there are multiple fun scenes in which color-shifting octopi come out of nowhere to menace our heroes. There are also a lot of fun references to other media, including March Of The Penguins and Encounters At The End Of The World (complete with Werner Herzog as a documentarian). The voices – as if the presence of John Malkovich and Benedict Cumberbatch – are also top notch, with the penguins being specific enough as characters to carry the film while being broad enough to fit into pretty much every scenario.

There’s a real anarchic sense of fun that makes Penguins better than it has any right to be. At this stage of the franchise, there’s not much for the main gang to accomplish, but the side universe, featuring X-Men style super-teams of animals fighting other animals while humans remain clueless, can be a rich one. Not at lot to be said for it intellectually, but it’s really solid family entertainment nonetheless.

US Correspondent Ron Hogan laughed much more than he expected at the antics of the penguins, even after three movies and a TV series. There’s some staying power there, for sure, if you like the one note of the joke. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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3 out of 5