Its stars didn't need their own movie, but there's enough kid-friendly wit and non-stop humor to justify Penguins of Madagascar's existence.
Penguins of Madagascar takes us back in time to when three of the eponymous penguins - leader-type Skipper (Tom McGrath), brainy Kowalski (Chris Miller), and wild card Rico (Conrad Vernon) - first formed their own team, after having saved the unassuming Private (Christopher Knights) when he was still an egg. Cut to the present (which, here, is immediately after the events of Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted) and the Penguins are breaking into Fort Knox, in order to get Private a special present for his birthday.
There the Penguins are ambushed by Dave (John Malkovich), a vengeful octopus from their past - one who's devised an evil plan that involves all penguins in captivity around the world. The Penguins escape from Dave and his octo-minions, only to cross paths with an inter-species task force - led by the arrogant gray wolf "Classified" (Benedict Cumberbatch) - that belongs to the North Wind, an organization dedicated to saving helpless animals. But do the Penguins need the North Wind's help - or can they stop Dave and save the day, all by themselves?
Co-directed by Eric Darnell (all three Madagascar movies) and Simon J. Smith (Bee Movie), DreamWorks' Penguins of Madagascar gives the titular Madagascar supporting players a feature-length spinoff to call their own, but one which is unrelated to their spinoff TV series (Nickelodeon's The Penguins of Madagascar). The Penguins have long been presented as rather static characters, so it probably doesn't come as a shock to hear that they struggle to work as full-blown protagonists - resulting in a movie that offers fairly routine character development and explores pretty standard themes for an animated feature aimed at younger audiences.
However, the Penguins of Madagascar script - co-written by John Aboud and Michael Colton (The Comebacks) as well as Brandon Sawyer (the Penguins of Madagascar TV show) - makes up for that by keeping the jokes moving at a mile a minute. Not every gag (be it visual, verbal, or both) lands of course, but ultimately there end up being more hits than misses; the same goes for certain running jokes, some of which result in actual payoff, while others tend to come and go at random (see: the play-on-words with celebrity names). The Penguins, as characters, remain likable as ever and thus, manage to keep the madcap cartoon proceedings emotionally anchored with just enough heart.
The animation in Penguins of Madagascar offers the same combination of cartoonish caricature and photo-realistic detail as most other computer-animated features; it clears the current bar for quality studio-backed animated fare, but still falls well short of the recent highs achieved by Pixar, Disney, and even the best DreamWorks' releases (like the How to Train Your Dragon films). On the other hand, Penguins is one of the better recent 3D viewing experiences, offering lots of pop-out visuals and action scenes - without resorting to 3D gimmickry - that will be worth the higher ticket price for those who prefer that style of 3D cinema (those fans of immersive 3D only, you need not apply).
Penguin voice actors Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon, and Christopher Knights are clearly comfortable with their respective characters; meaning, in Penguins of Madagascar, the four leads' personalities come through their voices as much as their shenanigans. Surprisingly, John Malkovich has never worked on a fully-animated feature before, but his hammy delivery style is a perfect fit for the (sorta) criminal mastermind, Dave (whose forgettable nature, as a villain archetype, is something of a running joke in the movie). The same goes for Benedict Cumberbatch as "Classified"; it might not be a stretch for the Sherlock star, but his delivery is dead-on for the posh character, who usually serves as the straight man (wolf?) in the film's comedy.
Classified's North Wind team - demolitions expert harp seal Short Fuse (Ken Jeong), intelligence analyst snow owl Eva (Annet Mahendru), and the group's pilot polar bear Corporal (Peter Stormare) - all tend to be pretty one-note, which is probably why the film doesn't give any one of them much time in the spotlight. There's also a vocal cameo early on in Penguins of Madagascar that should make cinephiles laugh, even as it goes over many a kids' head (and probably a number of adults' heads too).
Its stars didn't need their own movie, but there's enough kid-friendly wit and non-stop humor to justify Penguins of Madagascar's existence. Some adults will enjoy the film more than others, and the same goes for younger moviegoers; kids in particular might only remember their favorite jokes afterwards but then again, there's not much else to remember. Still, when it comes to getting a handle on the art of pure silly, irreverent cartoon comedy, Penguins of Madagascar does a pretty commendable job.
Penguins of Madagascar is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 91 minutes long and is Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor.