With the voices of Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch. Written by John Aboud, Michael Colton, Brandon Sawyer. Directed by Eric Darnell, Simon J. Smith. Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor. 93 minutes.
Some of the best moments in recent animated hits have involved the supporting characters. There’s a huge fan base waiting for next summer’s “Minions” movie being spun off from the “Despicable Me” series. For the “Madagascar” films, the penguins–led by Skipper (voice of Tom McGrath)–have provided some surreal comedy. The question was whether they could sustain a movie on their own.
With PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR, it’s clear that they can. Sure, the script steals–ahem, borrows–from the plot of “Despicable Me 2,” but it goes off in its own delightfully loopy direction. It opens with some background on how Skipper, Kowalski (Chris Miller) and Rico (Conrad Vernon) come to meet Private (Christopher Knight). That it occurs during the filming of a documentary narrated by legendary arthouse director Werner Herzog tells you this is no slapdash effort.
Our quartet soon finds itself caught in a battle between Dave (John Malkovich), a squid who disguises himself as a human, and Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), the leader of an elite force who wants the penguins to get out of his way. However, the penguins are at the center of Dave’s plot to rid the world of cute animals that are so popular that no one wants to see a squid.
The penguins owe as much to service comedies like “Sgt. Bilko” and the like as to other cartoons, with Skipper commanding his troops and finding the angles he needs to outsmart his foes, whatever side they’re on. It’s also knowing about current pop culture without simply being an endless series of references. When the villain calls via computer to make his threatening demands, there’s no sound because he can’t figure out to make Skype work. One of the characters says, “It’s like talking to my parents.”
The key to making this work–beyond the animation and gags–is having distinctive characters. From the zany villain to the self-absorbed leader of the “North Wind” secret agents to the penguin Kowalski, who always blurts out the unpleasant truth at the least opportune moment, these are cartoon characters who come to life. The chase scenes in Steven Spielberg’s inert “The Adventures of Tintin” (2011) may be more technically brilliant, but who cared? Here, a chase scene through Venice becomes a comic romp, and viewers of all ages will be on the edge of their seats.
DreamWorks Animation has not always gotten its due and, truth be told, has had its share of clunkers. However beyond the original “Shrek” and “How to Train Your Dragon,” the “Madagascar” films have been delightful comedy offerings. “Penguins of Madagascar” shows they don’t need the star power of big name voice actors (Malkovich and Cumberbatch are both in supporting roles) to make an animated feature work.
This is sheer, unadulterated fun. You don’t need to be a kid to enjoy “Penguins of Madagascar.”•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.