The penguins are back, and they take the spotlight in this time. “Penguins of Madagascar”, which is a spin-off sequel of the Madagascar series, is as busy and crazy as you can expect from a standard animation product packed the series of exciting hyperbolic action sequences, and that will probably keep you engaged as long as you do not mind about its thin plot and characterization. It loses its steam especially around the climax part, but it moves quick and fast throughout its short running time, and, though it is less satisfying than the better installments of the franchise, it is still fun to watch these bumbling penguins bouncing around several wild moments as preposterous as James Bond movies.
Its prologue sequence tells us how they happened to leave the Antarctic area when they were young, and it is accompanied with one of the funniest jokes in the film. As a long line of penguins is moving along their usual migration track, we hear the deadpan narration by none other than Werner Herzog as a documentary filmmaker, and his recognizable voice certainly adds an extra layer of self-conscious humor to this moment while penguins casually recognize that they do not have much thought on their habit or the documentary crew shooting them right now.
But our penguin heroes were a bit different from other penguins because of their willingness to go further for whatever mission they can think of, and they eventually went through many adventures or misadventures as shown in three previous films and one TV series. I must confess that it initially took some time for me to tell who is Skipper or Kowalski, but these penguins are a lot more distinctive than ninja turtles thanks to their simple but colorful personalities. While Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath) is their overconfident leader, Kowalski (voiced by Chris Miller) thinks of their plans which usually do not go well, and Rico (voiced by Conrad Vernon) can swallow many various things to be stored in his stomach, and Private (voiced by Christopher Knights) is more like a rookie who still has lots of things to learn from his senior penguins.
After the prologue scene, the story immediately goes to the point not long after the ending of “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” (2012). Although they had a big success through their circus business with other animals (most of the other characters in the previous films do not appear in this film, by the way), the penguins are eager for another risky mission, and they are about to break into the Fort Knox in Kentucky for something which turns out to be far more modest than Auric Goldfinger’s goal.
Unfortunately, they soon get captured right on the spot by a super-villain waiting for them in advance, so we get a classic case of talking villain syndrome when they are taken to Dr. Octavius Brine (voiced by John Malkovich with his usual silky loftiness), a megalomaniac scientist who is revealed to be the human disguise of an evil octopus named Dave. Dave has nurtured his personal anger toward penguins since his popularity was decreased by their inherent cuteness which stole many zoo visitors’ attention from him, and, using his recently developed special serum, he is about to initiate a diabolical plan for his revenge on the penguins around the world.
While the details of Dr. Octavius’ vengeful plan do not exactly feel fresh to you if you have seen “Despicable Me 2” (2013), “Penguins of Madagascar” compensates for that and its other weak points to some degrees through its brisk handling of jokes and actions. The directors Simon J. Smith and Eric Danell keep the story jumping around the various locations in the world as maintaining its quick narrative pace, and the action sequences in their film are handled well with enough excitement while many jokes are constantly thrown into the screen.
Meanwhile, we are also introduced to several new characters. After they manage to escape from Dr. Octavius, the penguins encounter a group of super-spy animals led by a wolf named Classified (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), who is the head of the North Wind. Cumberbatch ably handles the jokes in his scenes while mostly sounding quite serious, and his unflappable voice performance works as a good counterpart to the bouncy voice performances by Tom MaGrath, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon, and Christopher Kinghts, who play along well with each other with a good teamwork spirit as before.
Although not everything is successful in its final result, “Penguins of Madagascar” is a well-made animation film to enjoy despite its visible weaknesses. A romantic subplot between Kowalski and one of Classified’s team members is rather pointless (is it obligatory for every Madagascar movie to insert at least one interspecies romance into their plot?), and its climax sequence feels dragged at times as going back and forth between action and comedy a little too frequently.
When I watched the first film of the Madagascar series in 2005, I was not so impressed by it, and then I was rather surprised by the notable improvement in the following installments. “Penguins of Madagascar” is a little one step down from the peak of the franchise, but I give it 3 stars because I had a fairly nice time during the early screening of this morning. You will probably forget many of its fun moments not long after watching it, but it gives you as much as you pay for your ticket at least.