The franchise spawned by DreamWorks Animation’s 2005 “Madagascar” keeps plugging along. Not only is a fourth installment in the works, but a cable TV series, “The Penguins of Madagascar”—featuring a bunch of characters from it, including penguins Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath), Rico (John DiMaggio), Kowalski (Jeff Bennett), and Private (James Patrick Stuart), as well as lemurs King Julien, Maurice and Mort and chimps Mason and Phil—has been prospering on Nickelodeon since 2009. Now we have what amounts to a spin-off from that TV spin-off, with the four penguins going the feature route. One can only imagine what further permutations the endless search for profit will bring.
“Penguins of Madagascar” shapes up as an extended origins episode of the TV show, beginning with a “March of the Penguins” send-up in which the young Skipper, Rico and Kowalksi rebelliously rescue the recently-hatched Private from being eaten by a herd of ravenous seals. (The sequence is notable for a really funny cameo featuring Werner Herzog as a documentarian not above inserting himself into the action—a rare bit of wit that will, of course, entirely escape the kids—and most adults, one suspects.) It then lurches into the main plot by having the now-quartet of grown-up birds invade Fort Knox, not to steal gold but to take advantage of the only vending machine that still dispenses their favorite food, Cheesy Dibbles, a Cheetos-like snack no longer produced because of its chemical ingredients.
But the mission leads to their being kidnapped by the movie’s villain, Octavius Brine (John Malkovich), an octopus posing as a human scientist who’s waging a vendetta against all penguins because the cute little critters always upstaged him at zoos and circuses. Brine is systematically collecting penguins from all over the world in order to turn them into mutants humans will no longer find cuddly but instead want to exterminate.
Naturally Skipper insists that he and his stalwart crew must derail Octavius’ dastardly plot, a job that will not only take them into a series of cliff-hanging adventures but bring them into competition—and ultimately cooperation—with an ‘elite’ animal task force called North Wind, led by Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch) and including seal Short Fuse (Ken Jeong), owl Eva (Annet Mahendru) and polar bear Corporal (Peter Stormare). Unfortunately, even they don’t prove terribly adept in stopping Octavius, and in the end it’s spunky little Private—though dismissed throughout as having no particular skill—who proves himself by saving the day.
Under the direction of Eric Darnell (who with Tom McGrath co-directed all three previous “Madagascar” movies) and Simon J. Smith, and spiffily edited by Nick Kenway, “Penguins of Madagascar” moves along at a breakneck pace, and the 3D is put to good use. The voice work is engaging, with Malkovich savoring even the script’s most tedious running gag—having the villain give his subordinate octopuses orders that play on actors’ names (“William, hurt them!” or to his cook “Kevin, bake on!”). There’s also some amusement in Kowalski’s inclination to respond to questions with complete candor, even when the answer is devastatingly deflating.
For the most part, though, the picture has a second-hand quality, which is perhaps a virtue since it’s really a third-hand product. Though they’re moderately amusing and should keep kids engaged, the penguins’ adventures never really take flight—sort of like the creatures themselves—and adults will find less to enjoy than in really first-rated animated flicks. And the protracted finale, abounding with mutant penguins that have to be transformed back to their sweet selves, comes across as just another desperate attempt to end a movie on a spectacular note.
Perhaps the ultimate explanation for why “Penguins of Madagascar” is just a middling effort is that same one for why most attempts to promote live-action supporting characters into stars of their own films fail. What works in small doses can pall over the long haul. These penguins seem to fare best as periodic interlopers in the “Madagascar” movies (which, to tell the truth, were pretty mediocre in the first place), and perhaps they’re perfect for the half-hour television format. But as stars of a feature, they wear out their welcome