Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Review: "Penguins of Madagascar"

The “Madagascar” movies have run their course, and if spinning off the cute penguin sidekicks into their own movie seems like a cheap grab for more bucks, that’s because it is.

There really is no reason for this film to exist, or more accurately there is no reason for it to exist as a film. Lots of animated movie franchises now replicate themselves into straight-to-video shorts, including “Toy Story,” “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda.” There’s no shame in it – my kids love to watch these off the DVR or Netflix.

The problem comes in taking a story that is all television and trying to pass it off as a whole movie. “Penguins of Madagascar” is like that. The trio of screenwriters are all TV guys, and it shows. It’s just a bunch of goofy jokes and antic capers with barely a story thread to connect them.

It likely will keep wee ones entertained, though adults may find their eyelids growing droopy (as did I).

As you’ll recall, the running joke about the penguins is that they act like secret agent men. Their chief, Skipper (voice of Tom McGrath), talks like a G-man from a 1950s television show. Of course, it’s funny that clownish, winsome penguins act like mini-James Bondses … for a while. Trying to run out the gag for 92 minutes quickly grows weary.

To help string it along, they add an extra dimension: the youngest penguin, Private (Christopher Knights), is the adorable mascot of the foursome, beloved more for his endearing ways and looks than as integral member of the team. Over the course of the show… er, excuse me, movie, he gets to grow in their esteem.

The other two penguins are Kowalski (Chris Miller), Skipper’s right-hand man and teller of truths, even when inconvenient and upsetting; Rico (Conrad Vernon) has a penchant for swallowing things, and blowing stuff up, and swallowing things that later blow up after he’s expectorated them.

John Malkovich is really good as the heavy, an octopus named Dave who sometimes masquerades as a human scientist who looks exactly like Dwight Schrute from “The Office.”  It seems he’s a former zoo resident who hated having his limelight stolen by penguins, and now he’s created an energy ray that makes them less pretty, or something.

(Sorry if I’m a little fuzzy on the details; seriously, I think I may have nodded off.)

The X-factor in the story is another team of group of critter agents. They call themselves the North Wind, as all the animals are arctic-oriented, and they drive the penguins mad with jealousy because of all their cool equipment and vehicles. Compared to them, the penguins are old-school amateurs.

The interlopers are: Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch) – his name isn’t classified; it’s actually “Classified”; Short Fuse (Ken Jeong), a peevish seal; Eva (Annet Mahendru), an alluring snow owl; and Corporal (Peter Stormare), a Russian polar bear who acts as the outfit’s muscle.

The humor is largely of the slapstick-and-bodily-emissions variety, perfectly suited to the kindergarten crowd. Co-directors Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith stage action scenes that are generally pretty coherent.

There are also a few in-jokes scattered throughout the dialogue, in which names of celebrities are buried inside seemingly mundane chatter: “Elijah, would you hand me that?” And listen carefully to the narrator at the beginning – it’s probably the best laugh of the movie, for those who get it.

I tittered at a few of these, while recognizing this movie was not made for me. Or anyone who counts their age in double digits.


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  4. I thought of dwight too and so did my mom