×

Film Review: ‘Penguins of Madagascar’

DreamWorks Animation's 'Madagascar' franchise spinoff is a limp attempt at cute and cuddly international intrigue.

With:
Voices: Tom McGrath, Christopher Knights, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare, Andy Richter, Danny Jacobs, Werner Herzog, Billy Eichner.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1911658/

Charming in small doses, the “Penguins of Madagascar” prove altogether less irresistible in their feature-length starring debut. The latest example of DreamWorks Animation’s franchise mania is a frantic, peppy, in-your-face slice of irreverent toon action, but the result is far more snoozy than Looney (as in Tunes). In the wake of summer’s creatively potent but commercially disappointing “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” the studio could really use another breakout, but “Penguins” looks to fall more in line with the (superior) “Shrek” spinoff “Puss in Boots” and post solid rather than stratospheric returns at the holiday B.O. Overseas reception, where each “Madagascar” pic has outperformed the last, could be friendlier.

DreamWorks practically patented the idea of conceiving and marketing animated pics like live-action comedies intended to appeal equally to adults and kids, and while this latest pic dutifully tows the company line, it’s also far too juvenile and generic to be of much interest to anyone over the age of 9 (or tasked with finding something to keep a kid occupied for 90 minutes).

The intent is to explore the backstory of the scene-stealing penguin quartet from the three previous “Madagascar” pics: Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath), Private (Christopher Knights), Kowalski (Chris Miller) and Rico (Conrad Vernon). Repeatedly described as cute and cuddly (although nowhere near as adorable as the cast of George Miller’s “Happy Feet” films), the penguins also fancy themselves super-spies always on the lookout for espionage and intrigue. Or at least that’s how Skipper, the fearless but not-so-bright leader, sees his crew.

Kowalski serves as the brains of the operation, Rico is the wild card always ready to blow things up, and junior member Private simply wants respect  something narcissistic nincompoop Skipper is too self-involved to recognize. Fortunately, there’s an international incident brewing, so Skipper can spring his team into action and Private can prove his worth in an inevitable 11th-hour triumph.

Before the script by Michael Colton, John Aboud and Brandon Sawyer can get to its predictable conclusion, there’s some paint-by-numbers business to take care of. That includes the introduction of chief antagonist Dr. Octavius Brine (John Malkovich), an octopus disguised as an eccentric human scientist who harbors a deep-seated grudge against penguins everywhere for their long history of stealing his shine at zoos and marine parks. Brine commands an octopus army with the dastardly plan of kidnapping penguins and turning them into mutants.

Helping the penguins in their battle against Brine is an undercover special task force dubbed the North Wind, led by charismatic blowhard Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch a wolf so devoted to his job he won’t even reveal his real name. He’s supported by explosives-expert seal Short Fuse (Ken Jeong), brainy and beautiful owl Eva (Annet Mahendru) and brawny polar bear Corporal (Peter Stormare). While Classified and Skipper butt heads, it’s Private who emerges as the animal with the best plan to stop Brine.

With hyperactive direction from “Madagascar” veteran Eric Darnell and newcomer Simon J. Smith (“Bee Movie”), barely a moment goes by without a wacky shenanigan or massive action setpiece to keep up the relentless pace. The jokes may be plentiful but they’re rarely inspired, typified by a Riverdance parody (isn’t that way past its expiration date?), kid-friendly bodily-function humor (“Nobody breaks the North Wind!”) and Brine’s increasingly insipid habit of speaking to his minions in celebrity-name puns. (“Nicolas, cage them!” “William, hurt them!” At least “Charlize, they’re on the ray!” isn’t too shabby.)

Limited attempts at heartfelt emotion between the characters play as pure sap, undermined by the frankly off-putting personalities of the penguins themselves. Skipper is insufferable, Private is a milquetoast doormat, Kowalski is an afterthought and Rico doesn’t even really speak (or do much else besides chow down on the penguins’ preferred junk food, the repulsive-sounding Cheezy Dibbles).

Maybe the penguins were never meant to carry a feature film. (They’ve done just fine as the stars of a Nickelodeon animated series, set in an “alternate timeline” to avoid continuity conflicts with the bigscreen franchise.) As voiced by a quartet of behind-the-scenes craftsmen (McGrath, Miller and Vernon primarily work as directors, and Knights as an editor), they lack the flair and personality necessary for starring roles  even of the animated kind.

That’s all the more evident in comparison to Cumberbatch and Malkovich, who invest their vocal contributions with colorful traits and rich inner lives that belie their all-too-limited screen time. (Animators apparently observed both actors’ individual work in the recording booth and borrowed gestures and movements from those physical performances for their toon counterparts.) Although the two thesps have experience with motion capture work (Cumberbatch in “The Hobbit” films and Malkovich in “Beowulf”), “Penguins” reps the first traditionally animated feature for each. Judging by the much-needed added value they bring here, it won’t be the last.

On the tech side, the pic is a generally smooth ride, with careful consideration given to making the many action sequences pop in 3D. But the graceful camerawork, precise editing and high-quality animation still can’t disguise the lack of imagination that went into the overall conception and the repetitive sameness that creeps into every bind the penguins find themselves in. Despite the varied locations  Venice, Shanghai and Kentucky’s Fort Knox among them  “Penguins” never has the feel of a thrilling globe-trotting caper.

As long as “Penguins” entertains their kids, frazzled parents aren’t likely to mind the lackluster effort. But in a year in which they’ve already been exposed to “The Lego Movie” and “Big Hero 6,” even the littlest moviegoers may very well call fowl on this one.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Penguins of Madagascar'

Reviewed at 20th Century Fox Studios, Los Angeles, Nov. 10, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 92 MIN.

Production: (Animated) A 20th Century Fox release of a DreamWorks Animation presentation of a PDI/DreamWorks production. Produced by Lara Breay, Mark Swift. Executive producers, Tom McGrath, Mireille Soria, Eric Darnell. Co-producer, Tripp Hudson.

Crew: Directed by Eric Darnell, Simon J. Smith. Screenplay, Michael Colton, John Aboud, Brandon Sawyer, story, Alan Schoolcraft, Brent Simons, Colton, Aboud. Camera (color, 3D); editor, Nick Kenway; music, Lorne Balfe; production designer, Shannon Jeffries; art director, Ruben Perez; sound (Dolby Atmos); sound designer/re-recording mixer, Paul N.J. Ottosson; heads of story, Robert Porter, Derek Drymon; head of layout, Conan Low; head of character animation, Olivier Staphylas; visual effects supervisor, Philippe Gluckman; associate producers, Jennifer Dahlman, Damien de Froberville; casting, Leslee Feldman, Christi Soper Hilt.

With: Voices: Tom McGrath, Christopher Knights, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare, Andy Richter, Danny Jacobs, Werner Herzog, Billy Eichner.

More Film

  • Disney Music Group Launches 'For Score'

    Disney Music Group Launches Composer Podcast Series

    Disney Music Group, in association with Treefort Media, will debut “For Scores,” a new podcast series featuring interviews with film and television composers from Disney, Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox. Set to launch this week, the podcast is hosted by Variety contributor Jon Burlingame and “will give voice to award-winning visionary composers, exploring [...]

  • Johnny Flynn Stardust

    Johnny Flynn is David Bowie in First Look at 'Stardust'

    Salon Pictures has unveiled a first look image of Johnny Flynn as David Bowie in its upcoming feature “Stardust.” Rising star Flynn, who recently starred in Michael Pearce’s BAFTA-winning debut feature “Beast” and co-starred in the ITV and Amazon Studio’s adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair,” stars as the music icon as he embarks [...]

  • Dan Stevens

    Dan Stevens Joins Netflix Comedy 'Eurovision'

    “Legion” star Dan Stevens has joined the cast of Netflix feature “Eurovision,” alongside Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams and Pierce Brosnan. The British actor, who made his name in “Downton Abbey” and recently finished a three-year run on FX’s “X-Men” spin-off “Legion” from Noah Hawley, will play Alexander Lemtov, a Russian contestant taking part in the [...]

  • THE-SONG-OF-NAMES

    Tim Roth, Clive Owen-Starrer 'The Song Of Names' To Close San Sebastian

    Starring Clive Owen and Tim Roth, Canadian François Girard’s historical drama “The Song of Names” will close the 67th San Sebastian Festival on Sept. 28. World premiering at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival as a Gala Presentation, “The Song of Names” will play out of competition at what will be its international premiere. Hanway Films [...]

  • Dogwoof Boards Venice-Bound Imelda Marcos Doc

    Dogwoof Boards Venice-Bound Imelda Marcos Documentary ‘The Kingmaker’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Dogwoof has boarded Lauren Greenfield’s “The Kingmaker,” about Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines. The hotly anticipated feature doc delves into the disturbing legacy of the Marcos regime and Imelda’s attempts to aid her son’s political career. It will have its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and then screen at [...]

  • Yao Chen in “Send Me to

    Cheng Cheng Films Nabs North American Rights to China's 'Send Me to the Clouds'

    New York-based distributor Cheng Cheng Films has acquired North American rights to first-time Chinese director Teng Congcong’s comedy drama “Send Me to the Clouds,” starring and produced by A-list actress Yao Chen. The company is planning a theatrical release for fall 2019. “Cheng Cheng has always championed films with strong female leads,” the firm said [...]

  • A White White Day

    Film Movement Brings ‘A White, White Day’ to the U.S. (EXCLUSIVE)

    OSLO  —  New-York based distributor Film Movement has acquired U.S. rights to critically-lauded Icelandic drama “A White, White Day,” today’s opening film at New Nordic Films in Haugesund. In a separate deal, sales agent New Europe Film Sales has closed French-speaking Canada with Funfilm and English-speaking Canada with Game Theory. Hlynur Pálmason’s sophomore pic, “A [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content