Penguins of Madagascar

Whether in TV or movies, spin-offs are risky, never more so than when the figures being spun off are wacky supporting characters who must now carry the story themselves. What made viewers happy in small doses may overwhelm them when it’s administered in jumbo servings. You may think you want a bowl of Lucky Charms with nothing but marshmallows, but really, you don’t.

But the quartet of conniving penguins who have consistently been the funniest part of the “Madagascar” films (and who already have their own Nickelodeon TV series) have now successfully launched a “Penguins of Madagascar” movie, a zippy action comedy that’s closer in spirit to Looney Tunes than the usual DreamWorks offering. Directed by franchise veteran Eric Darnell and DreamWorks stalwart Simon J. Smith, and written by a trio of men whose experience is mostly in live-action, the film is stuffed with jokes for kids and their parents (including a running gag about celebrity names that never failed to crack me up). Is it possible that I enjoyed this more than any of the “Madagascars”? Yes, yes it is.

A funny prologue shows the four flightless schemers as chicks on “the Earth’s frozen bottom,” as a Herzogian documentary narrator (voiced by Werner Herzog!) calls Antarctica. Their characters, not previously differentiated very well, are laid out: Skipper (Tom McGrath), who talks like Kirk Douglas in a war movie, is their leader; Kowalski (Chris Miller) is his second-in-command, and the one who would have a love interest if this were live-action; Rico (Conrad Vernon) handles demolition and can store virtually anything in his mouth; and Private (Christopher Knights) is the cute younger penguin who’s protected and coddled by the other three.

With nary a Ben Stiller or Chris Rock cameo to be found, the film then leapfrogs past the events of the “Madagascar” series to the present day. Interrupted while trying to steal gold from Ft. Knox (don’t ask … because there’s no explanation), the penguins end up face to face with an insane octopus named Dave (John Malkovich), who wears a convincing human disguise and hates penguins. A true Bond villain in all but his name, Dave has a sinister plan to wreak revenge on the world’s penguin population for being a more popular zoo and aquarium attraction than he ever was.

As they work to thwart Dave’s plan, the penguins meet up with an elite undercover task force consisting of a wolf, a polar bear, a seal, and an owl, all specially trained in this line of work. (The penguins, resourceful and clever though they may be, are technically amateurs.) The hyperactive story goes a million different ways — Private feels like the other penguins don’t take him seriously; Kowalski has a crush on the sexy she-owl; the penguins have to prove their worth to the task force — but it isn’t as cluttered as you’d expect. The caper comes off as an offbeat, slightly manic adventure, exuding energy but not chaos. Turns out these birds can fly on their own after all.

B (1 hr., 32 min.; PG, mild rude humor and action.)

Originally published at Film School Rejects.