The dialogue in Penguins Of Madagascar is too clever for the film. It dislodges itself from its silly plot and hackneyed characters and stands above them, almost like a comedian convinced his audience is too dumb to get his jokes. When Skipper, the lead penguin, rambles on about tactics and confuses names and mixes up plans, he’s very funny. When the plans are executed, it’s not so funny. Something vital oozes away from the heart of the film.
I think it’s because Penguins is not mad enough. Everything happens at super fast speed, much like Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs (2009). But that movie knew how crazy it had to be and tipped over the edge of sanity by showering its characters with food, literally. The craziest we get here in Penguins is when an evil octopus zaps a bunch of cute, cuddly penguins and turns them into unsightly abominations.
Speaking of cute, cuddly penguins, what kind of penguins are these? Many of us (excluding myself) have sat through movie after movie, TV show after TV show of these indefatigable penguins and not one of us has questioned their species. They are not emperor penguins, for sure, yet they live in the depths of Antarctica. Their young look like miniature adults, which is untrue of any bird species, except for their newly hatched chicks that, oddly, resemble emperor penguin chicks. Sometimes it helps to add a layer of information and education to a kids’ movie, so that it works on multiple fronts and doesn’t settle for being mindless entertainment.
Our four heroes are Skipper (Tom McGrath), the confident leader; Kowalski (Chris Miller), information extraordinaire; Rico (Conrad Vernon), the gobbling handyman; and Private (Christopher Knights), the newest, youngest, cuddliest penguin, whose role, as far as I can tell, is to be cute, pine for Skipper’s affection, and save the day. He’s not even smart.
If you’re unfamiliar with this quartet, they operate like Charlie’s Angels pumped with adrenaline, choreographed like parkour experts crossed with ballerinas. These are the most agile penguins you’ll ever see, unless you consider the Happy Feet fellows and think they could survive this plot.
The villain here is a big purple octopus named Dave, who is voiced by John Malkovich without his snaky, sinister undercurrents. Malkovich is so good at playing conniving wolves that feast on the weaknesses of innocent sheep, which is a gift Dave should no doubt also be receiving, but Malkovich goes instead for the maniacal evil genius approach, which sits somewhat uncomfortably with his intentions.
Dave, we learn through flashback, was an octopus in the zoo who just wanted to be seen by the crowd, but the crowd was always more interested in the four penguins behind him. Now, many years later, he wants revenge, not just against Skipper and his crew but against all penguins, everywhere. Or at least all the penguins that belong to Skipper’s nameless kind.
Drawn into the picture is an animal secret service force called North Wind (“No one ever, EVER, breaks the Wind!”), headed by Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), a wolf; Short Fuse (Ken Jeong), a baby harp seal; Eva (Annet Mahendru), a Russian owl; and Corporal (Peter Stormare), a polar bear. That a secret service would hire a polar bear for clandestine missions doesn’t speak very well for whoever’s running the show.
What North Wind provides is a kickstand. They’re after Dave, because all secret services must be after the villain. Skipper’s penguins are also after Dave. This sets up many confrontations between the two bands of heroes that require them to quibble over battle strategies and compare the sizes of their… egos. It’s an age-old formula for movies like this, but if it works, why fix it?
Penguins is a fun movie, like the Madagascar movies were fun, if you found the Madagascar movies fun. Like I said, the dialogue is its treasure. I particularly enjoyed the way Dave weaves celebrity names into his commands — “Drew, Barry, more power!”, “Hugh, Jack, man your stations!”. They might slip over the heads of younger viewers, who will have to wait a few more years before many of these names make sense, but at least they will make the adults laugh. I suppose that’s mission accomplished.
Best Moment | Any scene with Skipper barking instructions. He’s regularly very funny.
Worst Moment | The needless, crowd-pleasing, mid-credits scene.