Some of the best moments in the three “Madagascar” films were delivered not by the stars — a lion and his zoo buddies — but by four peripheral figures.
We’re talking about the penguins, a bunch of madcap Marxists (of the Groucho variety) who have somehow gotten it into their fuzzy little heads that they are an elite military unit. Despite their overall incompetence, at a crucial moment these diminutive black-and-white commandos always come up with an outlandish plan to save the day.
The penguins have enjoyed their own animated TV series, and in DreamWorks’ “Penguins of Madagascar” they seize the big screen. If you’ve somehow managed to overlook them so far, well, they’re kinda great.
Part of it is their distinct personalities, even though they look pretty much alike. The leader, Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath, who created the characters), is a distillation of every movie drill sergeant ever. He spits out rapid-fire orders (Skipper’s mouth moves much faster than his brain) but has a soft spot for his “men.”
Kowalksi (Chris Miller) is the idea man, expected to come up with an appropriate plan for any contingency. Rico (Conrad Vernon) has a voracious appetite: He’ll gulp down just about anything, only to regurgitate those items days later when they are needed.
Finally there’s Private (Christopher Knights), the new kid, still finding his way and fawned over by the others.
Their new nemesis: a mad scientist/octopus named Dave (John Malkovich). Dave used to be a top attraction at zoos and marine parks, but he invariably was dethroned by the arrival of cute, cuddly penguins.
Dave’s hatred of cute and cuddly is so virulent that he has come up with a “death” ray to transform all penguins into hideous ogres. (This is the movie studio behind “Shrek,” after all.) Let’s see if the public still finds these mutants adorable.
Along the way the penguins are assisted by (and sometimes compete with) an animal rights group called North Wind headed by a sophisticated wolf known only as Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch). The guys at North Wind have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of high-tech equipment but are still no match for the penguins’ bumbling simplicity.
The story is perfectly serviceable if not particularly inspired. The animation (Prairie Village native Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith direct) is terrific, but then animation is so routinely spectacular nowadays that it stands out only if it’s substandard. Even so, there are a couple of notable chases, one through the canals of Venice, the other through the streets of exotic Shanghai.
What makes “Penguins of Madagascar” so appealing to both kiddies and adults is the gonzo humor, both visual and verbal. For instance, there’s octopus Dave’s unconscious habit of working the names of Hollywood stars into his dialogue. As when he orders two of his underlings: “Drew! Barry! More power!” It’s like “Where’s Waldo?” for adults.
And how many garden-variety viewers will recognize the distinctive voice of famed German filmmaker Werner Herzog, here playing the leader of a documentary film crew recording the penguins’ early lives in Antarctica? (Bonus points if you saw Herzog’s 2007 documentary about scientists living at the South Pole, “Encounters at the End of the World.”)
There’s nothing of substance here, but there needn’t be. It’s just pure escapist fun, wittily delivered.
Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor.
You can read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
‘PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR’
Rated PG | Time: 1:32