If there’s one thing I’m a real pushover for, it’s a cartoon that isn’t afraid to be a cartoon – to be bright and fun and surging with goofy energy, and make absolutely no apologies for it. DreamWorks Animation’s newest 3D film, “Penguins of Madagascar,” is exactly like that. A cross between a spy thriller, a stunt spectacular, and a slapstick comedy, it plunges headfirst into an delightfully absurd plot and proceeds to indulge in a litany of hilarious visual and verbal gags. In true family-friendly fashion, jokes for both children and adults have been included. Younger audiences should be very amused, for example, by a sequence in which the title characters perform a polka dance in lederhosen and use their own posteriors as drums. Older audiences, meanwhile, should appreciate the prologue sequence, during which Werner Herzog voices a documentary filmmaker on an Antarctic tundra.
The film, as the title plainly states, is a spinoff from the “Madagascar” films, with the penguin characters, previously assigned to the position of supporting comedy relief, now the stars of their own wacky adventure. There are, in fact, only two direct references to the franchise the film originated from. In one, the penguins deliberately shoot themselves out of the same circus canon featured in “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” for they’re desperate to avoid having to listen to Reel to Real’s “I Like to Move It,” the adopted techno anthem of the “Madagascar” films, one second longer. The other is spliced into the end credits and can’t be described without giving away a crucial plot point. Let it suffice to say that the lemurs King Julian and Mort make an appearance.
During the opening Antarctica sequence, we see the title characters as precocious chicks who long for thrilling adventures and aren’t willing to look cute while mindlessly walking in group formations. After going against “nature’s way” and rescuing a runaway egg, the original three – self-appointed leader Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath), second in command Kowalski (voiced by Chris Miller), and speechless eating machine Rico (voiced as a series of grunts and growls by Conrad Vernon) – immediately gain a fourth member, Private (voiced by Christopher Knights), who speaks in an intentionally ridiculous British accent. The film then flashes forward ten years to the moment they shoot themselves out of a canon; they soar directly into Fort Knox and break in, not to steal bars of gold but simply to prove that such a thing can be done.
Upon entering a staff break room, the penguins are suddenly kidnapped and held captive in a vending machine, inside of which a giant purple octopus with big googly eyes and nasty crooked teeth played the waiting game. This would be Dave (voiced by John Malkovich), a former aquarium attraction who would repeatedly lose the public’s adoration to the penguins, mostly because of their cuteness. His evil scheme, which involves occasionally disguising himself as a rather flexible scientist named Dr. Octavius Brine, is to kidnap all the penguins of the world and use a huge laser machine to make them ugly and unappealing to the paying public. He has all the necessary supervillain gadgets and gizmos, including a submarine, along with a legion of octopus minions, who only speak in unintelligible gurgles.
Skipper, who fancies himself a fearless superspy but is in fact rather clueless, eagerly seizes the opportunity to stop Dave and save the world. Unfortunately, his efforts are repeatedly undermined by the North Wind, a technologically superior covert force dedicated to helping animals that cannot help themselves. The team competing with the penguins consists of: A gray wolf (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), whose classified name leads Skipper to think he’s actually called Agent Classified; a small seal named Short Fuse (voiced by Ken Jeong), who is, naturally, a demolitions expert; a snowy owl named Eva (voiced by Annet Mahendru), an intelligence analyst who immediately becomes the object of Kowalski’s affection; and a polar bear named Corporal (voiced by Peter Stormare), whose brute force masks tremendous sensitivity, especially in regards to the penguins’ cuteness.
The film’s overt silliness is something you must be willing to embrace. Consider Rico’s physically impossible talent of swallowing any and all objects, saving them within his body, and regurgitating specific items needed for a given situation. Also consider Dave’s verbal tendency to string together words that, when combined, sound as if he’s shamelessly dropping celebrity names. Examples: “Drew! Barry! More power!” “Elijah! Would you press the button?” “Nicholas! Cage them!” However, “Penguins of Madagascar” wouldn’t be complete if there wasn’t an element of sweetness. We see this mostly through the character of Private, who’s treated every bit like the rookie he is, Skipper never once taking his ideas into consideration. Part of the film involves Private working to gain the respect of his fellow penguins. How he goes about this and whether or not he succeeds, you’ll just have to see the film – and I recommend you do.