Normally, the Madagascar movies annoy me. There are a few good jokes, sure, but the amount of zany humor, puns, and slapstick stuff clearly intended for a super-young audience irritates me enough that it’s probably my second least favorite Dreamworks franchise (the first being Shrek). That being said, one of the few shining lights for me within those movies were the penguins, and it baffled me why it took three movies for the squadron of Skipper, Kowalski, Rico, and Private to get their own feature. 2014 remedied that, and brought with it what I think to be far and away the strongest film of the series.
In Penguins of Madagascar, the titular penguins find themselves caught up in the schemes of revenge-driven octopus Dave (John Malkovich) to use his somehow-obtained genetics degree (just roll with it) to create what he calls The Medusa Serum in order to take vengeance on the penguins of the world. Because of their cuteness, he was shunned from zoo after zoo and has been plotting and recruiting an army of cephalopods ever since.
The penguins aren’t alone, though. Also on the trail of Dave is a secret animal task force with inexplicable access to heavy weaponry called the North Wind, headed by Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), and staffed by the brawny Corporal (Peter Stormare), espionage expert Ava (Annet Mahendru), and demolitions specialist Short Fuse (Ken Jeong). Classified and his crew must contend with the bumbling-yet-effective penguins in order to stop Dave from turning his super-weapon on the penguins he’s kidnapped from around the world.
The voice acting pretty much across the board here is pretty fantastic. You might have noticed the star-studded cast that Dreamworks brought in for this production, and I’m normally skeptical when on-screen actors step into a voice role, because talent in one field doesn’t necessarily translate into another. in PoM, I was pleasantly surprised particularly with Cumberbatch, who plays the stodgy and frustrated Classified perfectly. Part of the credit for that definitely goes to the animation department though, as they perfectly capture his mannerisms, even in the form of a cartoon wolf. Malkovich is suitably insane as Dave, and reminded me a lot of Will Ferrell in Megamind. The writing for his character is probably the weak point in the film, but the charisma that Malkovich brings to the role helps to (at least somewhat) balance that out.
The shining star of performance in here though is definitely the rapport between the Penguins themselves. Tom McGrath’s Skipper reminds me a lot of Billy West’s Zapp Branigan from Futurama mixed with Patrick Warburton, and Chris Miller’s Kowalski is the perfect Spock-esque straight man to accompany him. Christopher Knight’s performance as Private is the heart of the movie, as Private aspires to be something more than a cute mascot to the team. He’s the character who undergoes the most growth in the film, and his arc is the glue that holds it together. That being said, it’s a credit to the comedic writing here, together with its tight pacing that the script being somewhat character-light doesn’t really hurt it at all. Conrad Vernon rounds out the team as Rico, a character who doesn’t really talk so much as make sounds and eat stuff. That being said, until I looked up who played the role, I thought that Rico’s Tazmanian Devil-esque growls and gibberish were courtesy of Dee Bradley Baker, and anyone who is a fan of voice acting can attest that that’s a colossal compliment.
For the large part, I loved the comedy writing in the film. When the penguins are on their mission it’s usually a combination of visual gags and quick dialogue that evokes Laurel & Hardy meets the Three Stooges. The friendship and rapport between the characters and their respective specialties (Skipper the leader, Kowalski the tech guy, Rico as demolitions/assault, and Private as… distraction, usually) is super-fun, especially when in an almost Mr. Magoo like fashion, their talent for improvisation causes them to repeatedly fall backwards into success despite their clearly having no idea what they’re doing. Skipper’s one-liners are great (“Ah, Beijing’s famous Little Dublin district!”, “Whoa, tone down the moxie, sass-mouth!”) and had me at the receiving ends of confused stares from train passengers when they caused me to laugh out loud. Most of the flaws in PoM can be overlooked just because the gags and frenetic pace make it just so damn fun to watch. Most, but not all.
The movie occasionally falls victim to the kind of lowest-common denominator, “zany” humor that I can’t stand from the other Madagascar films. One particularly groan-worthy running joke has to do with the names of Dave’s henchmen and their similarity to certain movie stars. The joke is LITERALLY nothing other than Dave saying their name, and then an action that sounds like the corresponding last name of the actor. Once or twice, it’s lame but bearable. But this is a well that the movie goes back to AGAIN and AGAIN and AGAIN to the point where you just go, “ENOUGH already. The comedy writing is otherwise great and well-timed here, so what happened? Did the director’s nephew with the lobotomy take a tour of the writer’s room for the day and mess with the script?”
That and the lazy falling back on the use of a couple fart jokes was a little disappointing, but the humor by and large hits the mark with rousing success such that I ended up having a great time watching it. In any other year not populated with movies like How to Train Your Dragon 2 or Book of Life, this movie would be an Academy Award nominee. However, even in an especially strong year for animated features, Penguins of Madagascar puts forth a strong display; and one worth going out of your way to see.