Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Eric Darnell, Simon J Smith
Stars: voices of Benedict Cumberbatch, John Malkovich, Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Chris Vernon, Christopher Knights, Ken Jeong, Peter Stormare, Annet Mahendru, Andy Richter, Werner Herzog.
As with Despicable Me‘s thoroughly entertaining minions, the scene stealing antics of the cute and wisecracking penguins briefly enlivened the Madagascar franchise, providing some much needed comic relief. They have already been given their own short lived spinoff television series, a host of short films, and direct to DVD films for the kids’ market. But when given their own big screen movie their charm somehow goes missing, and the whole thing falls flat. And although the cute penguins would seem to have a built in audience amongst the younger kids, there is little here to appeal to an older audience.
A brief prologue tells us how the penguins migrated from the ice fields of the Antarctic to the warmer climate of Madagascar. Then we meet Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath), the obvious leader of the group; Kowalski (voiced by Chris Miller), Rico (voiced by Chris Vernon) and the younger recruit known as Private (voiced by Christopher Knights) as an elite paramilitary gang of criminals as they attempt to break into the impregnable Fort Knox. There they run afoul of Doctor Octavius Brine aka Dave (John Malkovich), a shapeshifting squid who has long held a personal grudge against the cute penguins for stealing his thunder at the water theme park they shared. Dave sets out to try and make the world believe that penguins are not adorable or as cute as they seem by transforming them into mutants via the mysterious Medusa serum.
But this quickly becomes a preposterous spy versus spy like action comedy as the penguins reluctantly join forces with a organisation known as North Wind to try and defeat Dave and his megalomaniacal plans. North Wind is a sophisticated and technologically savvy organisation that acts to protect the animal kingdom from danger, and their methods are a complete contrast to the haphazard and chaotic approach of the penguins.
The cliched plot comes across as an energetic mix of Mission Impossible and Bond, which is not surprising given that writers John Aboud, Michael Colton and Brandon Sawyer come from a background in live action movies. The tone of the film is slightly anarchic and manic, but also a little clumsy and chaotic, and a healthy suspension of disbelief is required to go along with it. Disney’s rival animated action fantasy Big Hero 6 has broader appeal.
Directors Eric Darnell (who has worked on all the previous Madagascar movies) and Simon J Smith (Bee Movie, etc) keep things moving at a fairly fast pace. They have crammed the film full of visual sight gags that are come thick and fast and are designed to amuse the youngsters. The action races frantically through a number of exotic locales, from Venice to Shanghai and New York, and the animation that captures these landscapes is excellent. The CGI animation is superb and there some some quite exciting action sequences, including a frenetic gondola chase. However, the 3D process is unnecessary and adds little to the film.
There are also plenty of clever puns, usually developed around the names of well known actors, aimed at adult audiences. However, after 90 minutes or so, the antics of the penguins do become a bit repetitive at times, and much of the dialogue lacks real wit.
In his first role in an animated movie Malkovich brings his usual offbeat and eccentric style to his reading of the shapeshifting villain of the piece. The very busy Cumberbatch brings a touch of class and gravitas to his role as the arrogant superspy agent Classified. And veteran German director Werner Herzog offers a cameo, providing the voice for a documentary filmmaking who is shooting a film about penguins in the prologue sequence. Ken Jeong (the annoying presence in the Hangover trilogy) is less grating here as Short Fuse, a seal with expertise in explosives.
Darnell and Smith have resisted the temptation to hire big name actors to provide the voices for the penguins, instead settling on a number of directors and voice actors who have worked on a number of Dreamworks animated projects. Thus we get the likes of McGrath, who has co-directed the previous Madagascar outings as well as providing the voice for Skipper; Miller, who directed Puss In Boots; and Vernon, who directed Monsters Vs Aliens.
Ultimately though Penguins Of Madagascar seems like a purely cynical exercise in extending the life of a franchise that has run out of steam and creating an excuse to mass market lots of cute toys and merchandising for fast food chains.