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Review: “Penguins of Madagascar” – Good Work, Boys, High One!

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Penguins of Madagascar movieThe Madagascar franchise is hugely successful for DreamWorks and has been for several years, so it’s no surprise it’s still going. While the original cast has starred in a fairly tightly plotted trilogy of movies, DreamWorks has had to step to the side of that story to keep the series alive in games, specials, and TV shows. They’ve also had to, at times, focus on other characters, such as the not-so cute and cuddly, off the wall Penguins, who were given a Nickelodeon television series. Having proven themselves on the small screen as well as being present in all the Madagascar movies, the Penguins were finally given their own movie, the brand-labeling Penguins of Madagascar. It poses the all-important question a spin-off must ask – does it prove that there’s more life in the series or is it a sign to put this franchise in a crate and ship it off somewhere remote?

Having absolutely nothing to do with the continuity of the television series, the Penguins of Madagascar movie takes off straight from the end of Madagascar 3. Although trailers of young Skipper, Kowalski, and Rico saving Private just as he’s hatched may make you think this movie is a prequel, it quickly fast-forwards to present day. Sick of Marty and the other animals’ incessant performing of “I Like To Move It” (like much of the audience, I imagine), the Penguins decide to strike out on their own to celebrate Private’s birthday. Never the ones to stay out of trouble, they quickly wind up targeted by an octopus bent on taking revenge on all zoo penguins and team up with the North Wind, the elite Arctic-themed animal team chasing down the cephalopod supervillain.

The three Magagascar movies use the Penguins in small doses, providing humor and advancing the plot, and audiences eat them up, but it is questionable whether or not a group of crazy individuals like them can hold their own as the star attraction. Fortunately, their dynamic is fleshed out even more when they’re in the spotlight, and it actually works pretty well. Everyone has their own role. Skipper’s the leader, Kowalski’s the smart guy, and Rico is the one who regurgitates random yet useful objects. Skipper even explains this, much to the dismay of Private, who is reduced to the cute one and the team mascot. Through this comes character development, as Private struggles to prove himself as a valuable member of the team to win Skipper’s praise. Conversely, Skipper, always calm and in charge through his irrational orders, for once finds himself in over his head and in a situation he can’t control. Kowalski loses his cool, and much of his intelligence, as he is struck dumb by love. Rico is still Rico, the unintelligible crazy one who comes through in a pinch.

Penguins of Madagascar Desert Bouncy HouseThe typical Madagascar movie formula has a group of animals struggling to fit into an environment they don’t understand. Penguins is similar in that our leads, who always act like an elite spy team, have to actually prove themselves in a life threatening situation with a real super villain. The plot is tight and moves along quickly, without really slowing itself down for pointless gags. The action scenes are outlandish and fun, and the jokes land more often than not because the timing is right. There are plenty of funny lines in addition to the physical comedy, even among some of the crudeness, so it’s never going to bore children. Plus, fans of the TV series will appreciate the feature film budget and time put into the animation here to make the Penguins look better than ever. There’s even a touch of heart among all the zaniness.

The main cast may not be as diverse as the animal menagerie of Madagascar, but with new locales come new characters and, naturally, celebrity casting. The North Wind consists of the bear Corporal (Peter Stormare), snow owl Eva (Annet Mahendru), seal Short Fuse (Ken Jeong), and their wolf leader, who we only know as Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch). While the Penguins have always been depicted as hyper competent military types, the North Wind actually is a super secret spy organization that protects the world and has the tech to back them up. Watching the Penguins side by side with the North Wind is amusing because it highlights just how crazy and fly by the seat of their pants (so to speak) the Penguins are. They get out of scrapes quickly and painlessly, yet every time you watch them you fear for everyone’s life.

Penguins of Madagascar Classified and SkipperAlong with John Malkovich playing the villain Dave, the celebrities in this movie manage to bring levity to their characters without being a distracting exercise in stunt casting like some DreamWorks films. Speaking of Dave, he’s an octopus who sometimes wears a human disguise. Dave moves in creative ways when he’s in his human form, constantly proving that he’s still a cephalopod underneath that skin. Sadly, Dave suffers from an unfortunate case of stock DreamWorks expressions, which makes him look like Megamind’s face with the body of Monsters vs. Aliens’ Bob. He also has a legion of octopus minions which all function to create celebrity pun names, which is a humorous gag at first but gets overused as it goes on.

If the Madagascar franchise is going to continue, putting the Penguins in the spotlight is probably the safest bet considering they’ve already proven themselves as memorable, breakout characters. Penguins of Madagascar demonstrates that they can be just as entertaining as the original Madagascar group, if not more so. As much of a romp as this movie was, there’s still the looming threat that overexposure of these characters will ultimately dilute them, not only killing the franchise but leaving a bad taste in fans’ mouth as a result. I dread such attempts at keeping the franchise alive by shifting focus yet again, and heaven help us if we end up seeing a series of movies about King Julien.