Movie Review: “Penguins of Madagascar”

Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon, Christopher Knights, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Malkovich
Eric Darnell & Simon J. Smith

And so it’s come to this: spinoffs.

To be fair, “Penguins of Madagascar” makes perfect business sense on a number of levels. The penguins have been a TV staple for six years, so giving them a full-length feature has zero risk and a built-in audience. As an added bonus, launching a spinoff buys time for DreamWorks to plan the next “Madagascar” movie (currently scheduled for 2018). The tail is clearly wagging the dog here, for better and for worse. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s a shallow one. It’s also strange to get an origin story, and a hollow one at that, for characters we’ve known for almost 10 years.

The movie begins with Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller) and Rico (Conrad Vernon), as young penguins, daring to go against the conformist penguins and battling leopard seals in order to save a runaway, unhatched penguin egg, which would ultimately be Private (Christopher Knights). From that day forward, the four vowed to go against the grain and live for adventure. One day, they are captured by Dr. Octavius Brine (John Malkovich), who’s actually an octopus in disguise that is fed up with the overall cuteness of penguins, and plans to ruin them for all mankind. Enter the North Wind, a government agency assigned to protect animals in danger. Their leader is a wolf (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose name is classified. Skipper does not like having to answer to Classified, but as penguins begin disappearing around the world, the two must find a way to coexist and catch Brine.

“Penguins of Madagascar” has a fantastic running joke that, frankly, I’m surprised no one has done before. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it is, because spoilers. It’s the best thing about the movie, though, and for that alone, you don’t want this to be spoiled by a film critic.

Strangely, the movie doesn’t have much of a moral. It showcases the dangers of jealousy, but then shifts gears when it’s time to take a stand on the issue. There are sweet moments, but they’re superficial, which is ironic given the plot (superficiality is supposed to be bad, right?). The most frustrating thing about “Penguins of Madagascar” is that one could argue that the penguins are still the supporting act, even in their own movie. They’re involved in the action, yet peripheral at the same time. They deserve better than this.

It’s hard to imagine this movie with anyone but Malkovich and Cumberbatch playing their respective roles. Their performances are self-aware without distracting from the material, which is precisely what was called for. No one else, even the penguins, really stands out, and the great Ken Jeong is actually distracting as North Winder Short Fuse, the seal. He’s doing the same voice he did in “Turbo,” in which he played an Asian female. A human Asian female. ‘Jarring’ doesn’t begin to describe it.

Since the penguins never had to carry a “Madagascar” movie, it was easier for them to steal one. Now they have their own movie, and who steals it? No one, as it turns out. It all just sort of happens, and then it’s over, and does that surprise anyone? There is a direct correlation between certain characters’ popularity and their screen time. “Ice Age” mainstay Scrat is hilarious, but can you imagine an entire movie of him? It would be unbearable, and in about a year, Universal is releasing a “Minions” movie. They showed a trailer for it before the “Penguins” screening, and it looks like it has the exact same problems that this movie does. Some characters are simply funnier in limited quantities.