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THE PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR (2014) review

November 30, 2014

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written by: Michael Colton, John Aboud and Brandon Sawyer
produced by: Mark Swift, Lara Breay and Tripp Hudson
directed by: Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith
rating: PG (for mild action and some rude humor)
runtime: 92 min.
U.S. release date: November 26, 2014

 

Because there absolutely must be a family-friendly, crowd-pleasing movie released during Thanksgiving, Dreamworks Animation (DWA) is releasing “The Penguins of Madagascar”. You know these penguins from the three “Madagascar” animated features (hence the title), where they were often the best part of each movie. But they’re not actually from Madagascar. They have their own past and their own tales to tell. The result is a vibrant, crazy and hilarious romp.

“Penguins” reunites us with Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath, who also serves as a co-writer), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon) and Private (Christopher Knights), the cuddly yet resourceful quartet skilled in the art of espionage with a craving for the next adventure. Their stealth and savvy is matched only by their insatiable penchant (and weakness) for Cheezy Dibbles, their favorite choice of snacks. In their many adventures, they undoubtedly made some enemies, but none of them were aware of one in particular, a maniacal octopus named Dave (John Malkovich), who’s bitterness over getting pushed aside by the indisputable appeal of these four penguins (and their flightless species, in general) has fueled his quest for revenge. The super-intelligent Dave is determined to turn the tables on penguins by transforming them (and any cute creature) into freakish monsters.

 

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As Skipper and his team retaliate against Dave and his squid goons, they’re introduced to another creature quartet from The North Wind, a legitimately funded group of highly-trained animals whose goal is to save other animals. This group is led by a wolf named Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch) and consists of Short Fuse (Ken Jeong) a harp seal demolitions expert, Eva (Annet Mahendru) the snowy owl intelligence expert and the team muscle, Corporal (Peter Stormare), a polar bear. As both groups race to stop Dave from birdnapping all the adorable penguins from the world’s zoos, Private continues to feel unappreciated and question his place in quartet, which is the only family he’s known.

The directors of “The Penguins of Madagascar”, Eric Darnell (director of the three “Madagascar”) and Simon J. Smith (“Bee Movie”), are following an “if it ain’t broke” approach to this spinoff. The character design and animation display the same look and feel of the previous “Madagascar” movies. The action sequences are as manic and outrageous as we expect from those movies, but there are a few surprises along the way. That comes from the screenplay.

Usually when a movie has five screenwriters, there’s cause for hesitation, but the storyline and dialogue here is often quite clever and hilarious (with a handful of witty puns that revolve around famous actresses, for some reason), which is likely due to John Aboud and Michael Colton, two writers new to these movies, both regular commenters on VH1’s Best Week Ever. One expects silliness in such a movie, but the balance of one-liners, fun back-and-forth and comedic timing is highly entertaining. Thankfully, all the fun and the funny isn’t given away in the trailer.

 

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The new characters introduced in “Penguins” are colorful and well needed. Despite the title, the movie couldn’t float on the flippers of these four birds. Malkovich is obviously having fun as Dave, fully committed to deliver a maniacal persona, exposing both his insecurity and jealousy. The animators clearly had Malkovich in mind when creating the look of Dave, who resembles the actor without any coincidence whatsoever. Still, a little of Dave goes a long way and after a while, he becomes more cheesy than a growing threat and his evil plot starts to feel all too familiar. It’s no surprise that Cumberbatch also offers some fine work as the pompous wolf Collision. That scene from the trailer when he’s talking to Skipper, who keeps interrupting him with his Cheesy Dibbles snacking is even better in context of the scene. Cumberbatch and his crew are a welcome addition to this world of anthropomorphic characters, but their time on-screen here is more than enough. The heart and funny bone of the movie belongs to our four penguins who find a way out of any situation.

“Minions”, a spinoff of the “Despicable Me” movies, is getting released from Universal next summer and it’s hard not to think of them while “Penguins” is on the brain. Both movies are essentially doing the same thing – taking comical sidekick/ancillary characters from each established worlds, giving them their own story by adding some history and placing them in some kind of adventure/journey. Not being much of a fan of the Minions, if I had to pick I’d certainly lean towards these penguins. There’s less of them, first of all (and we all know less is more) and there’s definitely more personality to them, plus it helps that you can understand what they’re saying. I got annoyed just listening to the gibberish coming out of the Minions mouths in that movie’s trailer.

Initially, the concept of “The Penguins of Madagascar” felt like a greedy cash-grab, yet some may not realize there was a television series first. If it is a cash-grab, it’s a smart one. Although 2012’s “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” was probably the best of the three movies, fatigue had set in for the four main characters. But the more I thought about it, the more I was open to a movie that would let these four penguins cut loose. Any reservations I had were calmed as the filmed open to the sound of Werner Herzog’s voice (yes, the real Werner Herzog lends his unmistakable voice here and that’s all I’ll say), which found me chuckling and settling in for an enjoyable ride.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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