Penguins Of Madagascar
US (2014) Dirs. Eric Darnell & Simon J. Smith
Always be careful what you wish for. Whenever a supporting character in a film or TV series steals the show, calls for them to have their own spin-off are immediately leapt upon by producers, looking to milk the franchise some more. Not that you can blame them, but the real pressure is on the creators to come up with something to justify this spin-off.
When the military style comedy antics of the penguins provided much hilarity in the Madagascar films, calls for their spin-off were heard loud and clear. A typically fun seasonal short was the first response to test the waters, and when that proved popular, it was decided to test the potential of this whacky group in a feature length environment, which brings us to this film.
Not much of a plot really. When the penguins break out of the circus they and the other Madagascar animals joined and break into Fort Knox to steal some cheese snacks, they are captured by a deranged octopus named Dave and whisked away to Italy. The penguins escape Dave’s clutches and are saved by the North Wind, a secret service group trailing a mad scientist named Dr. Octavius Brine, unaware he is actually Dave in disguise. When Dave captures Private, the youngest penguin, the two groups work together to rescue Private and thwart Dave’s masterplan.
Dave’s anger stems from being snubbed at the zoo as a star attraction performing multiple tricks with his tentacles once the cute little penguins arrived. Having developed a chemical called the Medusa Serum, Dave plans to transform all the cute penguins in the world into grotesque monsters and make them abhorrent in the eyes of humans.
It’s a film aimed at young kids so the plot doesn’t need to be too involved, just as long as the penguins and other animals can make them laugh for 90 minutes, which they do here. For the adults the quick fire wordplay from Skipper the leader of the penguins, and the subtle “spot the star” game in the names of Dave’s octopi subordinates and the orders he gives them (e.g: “Kevin, bake on”, “Drew! Barry! More power!”) is for their amusement.
Not that either facet is mutually exclusive, as it would take a very churlish mind set not to let oneself go for the duration and just enjoy this as the silly bit of hokum it is. The only thing for the cynics to consider is whether the penguins manic routine and now established personalities – Skipper, the wise cracking general, Rico, the muscle who swallows everything, Kowalski, the brains of the group and Private, cute rookie – have the staying power for a feature length outing.
The answer is a cautious “yes”, cautious because the writers cleverly surrounded them with similarly entertaining characters to spar with and bounce off in the North Wind and a rather well defined antagonist in Dave, voiced with deliciously hammed up indulgence by John Malkovich. His tentacles are used for both comic effect when necessary and in creating menace, capitalising on the limitations of two arms has in shutting down our heroes.
Fronting the North Wind is smug British grey wolf Classified (yes that’s the joke) voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose mellifluous tones are suited to this well bred glory hound, relying on the on the skills of his crack team of Russian snowy owl computer expert Eva, Belgian explosives ace Short Fuse and monstrous Norwegian polar bear Corporal.
While the penguins rely on guile, improvisation and sheer luck, North Wind have all the Bon-esque gadgets and vehicles at their disposal. Much of the dynamic between the two groups is this clash of resources and philosophy, neither proving superior to the other yet paying dividends when working together in tandem. Considering Dave has an arsenal of weapons and his giant submarine of his own, both teams need to get their act together before it is too late.
The pace is brisk and really dips, even in quieter moments, but 90 minutes is still a long time to keep the manic humour going at a consistent rate, but the effort is there. In the first act, for example, the penguins find themselves on a whistle stop tour of the globe in escaping Dave’s clutches, in a stunning set piece of mid-air death defying plane hopping that sees them end up in China which they mistake for Ireland!
It is just as well that CGI technology has afforded the possibilities of creativity within the animated medium to be stretched beyond the time constraints of cell drawing (unless you are Katsuhiro Otomo in which case you’ll take your sweet time). Scenes like the one mentioned above are played out in near one-take shots for that dizzying sensation of perpetual motion and adrenaline pumping danger that is replicated in the final act when the action drives the story to its conclusion.
One the surface this doesn’t appear to be a heavy-handed morality play, just your average good vs. evil story, yet there is an obvious grey area of Dave having a good reason for his resentment after being snubbed from every zoo once the penguins usurped his position. Had the humans not been so shallow this wouldn’t have happened so if there is a lesson, it’s to love everyone and everything equally.
The presentation is fantastic as ever and the writing bursts with plenty of witty gags, quick fire laughs and frantic action. The voice actors are all joyfully committed to their roles with a feel for representing their respective animals; however only John Malkovich and Benedict Cumberbatch are the well-known names, which may or may not mean anything to the film’s appeal beyond the penguins themselves.
Delivering exactly what it says on the tin, Penguins Of Madagascar doesn’t have any pretence of being high art or a prestige film, just 90 minutes of animated mayhem and comic hijinks to give audiences of all ages a break from reality.