Penguins Of Madagascar – Review


In the movies, sidekicks are typically good for a spot of comic relief, stealing a scene or two while never having to do any sort of narrative heavy-lifting. There’s good reason for that: what works in small doses might not be as effective or as charming in the full flare of the spotlight. In some ways, the frenetically zany Penguins Of Madagascar suffers somewhat in promoting Madagascar‘s kooky quartet of penguins from sidekicks to stars. But there’s so much to enjoy here – from bursts of inspired comedy to unexpected character development – that it’s hard to begrudge DreamWorks its decision to expand these penguins’ horizons.

Powered more by enthusiasm and luck than good sense, Skipper (voiced by McGrath) leads his troop of spies in covert operations around the world. He’s aided by brainy Kowalski (Miller) and zany Rico (Vernon), with impossibly cute Private (Knights) tagging along for the ride. The penguins soon cross paths with the nefarious Doctor Octavius Brine (Malkovich), a barmy octopus seeking revenge on all penguins around the world for upstaging him with their cuteness. Can they stop Octavius without the help of Agent Classified (Cumberbatch) and his considerably more professional North Wind animal welfare task force?

In the main Madagascar franchise, the penguins – particularly the enormously self-confident Skipper – were frequently the punch-line or the butt of the joke. Their blend of confidence and incompetence provided sharp, swift bursts of humour, unencumbered by emotion. Having to headline their own movie means that the penguins must be given more depth and backstory: an effort that meets with rather mixed results. No one needed to see Private develop a personality and history; much of the joy of his character was the constant blank look on his adorably dumb face. The narrative mix of tired old tropes – Skipper’s almost fatherly attitude towards Private is coloured by his belief that the rookie can’t do anything beyond look cute – works, but only fitfully.

And yet, there’s plenty to recommend Penguins Of Madagascar, not least its absolute corker of an opening scene predicated on a runaway egg. Said egg unleashes a string of profoundly silly, utterly wonderful moments that sublimely blend farce with nature documentary – narration provided, in a stroke of genius, by German documentarian Werner Herzog – as Skipper convinces his buddies to ignore what nature tells them they ought to do and be. The bewildered reactions of their more conformist compatriots and the actions of the documentary crew are practically worth the price of admission.

The rest of the film never quite reaches these same heights again, but not for want of trying. Indeed, Penguins Of Madagascar hardly ever gets tripped up by its occasionally overwrought story – the film is so cheerful, zippy and fast-paced that it simply shrugs any narrative obstacles in its way aside. Instead, it barrels determinedly through action scene after action scene (spectacular airplane jumps and mid-air explosions all present and accounted for), while peppering the ridiculous confrontations and silly arguments between its characters with so many gags – many of them surprisingly smart – that viewers are unlikely to get them all in one sitting.

Fairly or not, one can’t ever help but approach a spin-off with some trepidation. Would it get lost in the desire to cash in on an unexpectedly popular phenomenon? Or would it succeed, almost in spite of itself? The solidly entertaining, frequently very funny Penguins Of Madagascar falls firmly in the latter camp. Even though it doesn’t have quite enough plot or weight to power itself all the way through its climactic face-off between good and evil (or cute and not-at-all-cute, to be more precise), the entire film is suffused with such a daffy, cheerful charm that it’s practically impossible not to have fun while watching it.

Summary: A breathlessly zany and surprisingly effective addition to the Madagascar franchise.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Shawne Wang