Sequels and spinoffs have become commonplace in children’s animated films.
Once an idea such as DreamWorks’ Madagascar takes off, it’s not too long before there’s a second or third installation, and films that should have gone straight to DVD get upgraded to box-office fare. Case in point: Penguins of Madagascar.
It pokes fun at its own spinoff status right from the start with a reference to the catchy yet annoying dance song I Like to Move It, made popular by the previous films. The movie even pays tongue-in-cheek homage to the tons of documentary films chronicling the lives of the cute, cuddly penguins with a doc sequence voiced over by director Werner Herzog (Encounters at the End of the World).
However, even with all of the well-intentioned references and good humor, Penguins doesn’t break new ground. The film is fun, light-hearted fare that could be watched in the comfort of a long car ride to Grandma’s house.
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Penguins tells the back story of the quartet of birds led by the Skipper (Tom McGrath, co-creator of the Madagascar characters), who turns everything into a covert military operation. His underlings include Kowalski (Chris Miller), the mastermind of the group, and Rico (Conrad Vernon), the belcher who likes to blow things up.
Then there’s Private (Christopher Knights), the cutest of the bunch. In Skipper’s eyes, he’s just decoration, but Private wants to earn his keep in the operation. The story begins with how Private was hatched, and how the group ended up so far from its home in Antarctica to wind up in the New York City Zoo, the original site of the films, as well as the Penguins TV series.
Flash-forward to Private’s birthday celebration during which Skipper decides to raid the most secure facility in North America, Fort Knox, for precious . . . Cheesy Dibbles? That’s right. Apparently, the cheesy, crunchy snack is worth more than gold to the penguins, who manage to get stuck in a vending machine and whisked off by a nemesis with an unfamiliar, dastardly name: Dave.
Dave, aka Dr. Octavius Brine, is an octopus with an ax to grind. As the star attraction at the New York Zoo, he was mortified after being ousted by the tremendously popular, cuter-than-cute penguins.
As he kept getting moved from zoo to aquarium to zoo, his hatred of the cuddly creatures grew so that Dave (voiced by a devilish John Malkovich) concocted a plan to rid the world of his adorable foes. “You took everything from me!” he tells the penguins.
The situation looks bleak for the feathered friends until a new group of heroes emerges to save them. An actual covert group known as The North Wind comes to the penguins’ rescue.
Led by Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock fame), a wolf with a power trip, the team consists of Short Fuse (Ken Jeong), a small seal with explosives expertise; Eva (Annet Mahendru), an intelligence analyst and brainy owl; and Corporal (Peter Stomare), a polar bear with a big heart.
The group’s motto: “Nobody breaks the Wind.”
While the two espionage groups clash in style, they ultimately must work together to defeat their common foe, Dave, to save penguin-kind.
The penguins’ humorous exploits were fine comedic distractions in previous films. Yet, as the center of their own feature, much of the comedy falls flat and some of the funnier references get old by the end of the film, such as Dave’s celebrity-themed verbal gags: “Nicolas, cage them!”
Penguins proves there can be too much of a cute thing.
Maricar Estrella, 817-390-7720
Penguins of Madagascar
Directors: Eric Darnell, Simon J. Smith
Cast: Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare and John Malkovich
Rating: PG (mild action and rude humor)
Run time: 92 minutes