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.