directors Simon J. Smith, Eric Darnell
I’m not sure if it’s is some long-running poetic justice but “the penguins of Madagascar (2005)” now headline their own movie. They’ve had their own television show since 2008.
The reason I suggest poetic justice is that Madagascar suffered the very typical short-comings of animated features circa 2005. The voice cast and characters that starred in the film were big name stars like Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, and Jada Pinkett Smith, but the real stars of the film from a fun perspective were the bit players, namely the penguins and the lemurs. This was the disparity between animation filmmakers making the best and funniest and the machinery of feature film production that wants the names of stars on the movie poster and to give those characters more emotional spectrum rather than making a movie that is just 100% good or funny.
The lemurs have their own show coming (they’ve shared The Penguins of Madagascar show on Nickelodeon with the eponymous birds so maybe there is further justice to be served.) Frankly, I think this critique was apt not only to the Madagascar films but to the Ice Age films as well. And it’s a legacy that is older than this century. Honestly if you look back on mid-era Disney features, you’ll find that the comic relief characters are often the best things about a movie while the rest of the big narrative scope is otherwise plodding or tedious. And it really was a formula not an inescapable model.
This film, The Penguins of Madagascar, isn’t 100% a swerve away from that but it’s a swerve in a good direction. Having just watched Disney’s very good Big Hero 6 (2014) only a week or two before, I have to say that The Penguins comes in with less to prove and a lot more to take away.
The film starts in Antarctica with three of the four Penguins, Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), and Rico (Conrad Vernon) first encountering Private (Christopher Knights) as an egg and then a hatchling. As far as a backstory as they need, the film tells of their innate ability to act as a screwball tactical squad, endlessly confident, making every mistake look intentional. This has been their schtick all along, of course.
The film’s main plot involves a vengeful octopus named Dave (voiced with slithering humor by John Malkovich) who seeks to turn all penguins into hybrid monsters to eradicate their cuteness. He’s got his own army of gibbering octopi who have a variety of names that make for a hilarious series of puns on Hollywood stars (e.g. “Kevin! Bake on! We’ll still need that victory cake!” — honestly I tried to keep up with all of them and couldn’t).
There is also (less interestingly) a group of animals called “The North Wind” who come in and try to outmaneuver and rescue the penguins. Luckily, the film balances this less funny gang with the real stars of the show, the black and white flightless heroes of the title.
The film is fast and furious with its humor. Beginning with a documentary team filming the penguins, with its director and narrator voiced by Werner Herzog quite amusingly, the film gets rolling pretty quickly. And jamming in the sight gags with verbal humor at such a manic pace, you don’t have time to sit around and wonder who is being pandered to exactly here: kids or adults, it doesn’t matter. It’s just fun.
Another thing the film doesn’t have to trade on is developmental beauty of animation design. Pixar and Disney typically up the ante every year with polish infused with the latest developments in digital technology, crafting the images to higher and higher levels of aesthetic achievements. Here, the film doesn’t linger over the beauty of the ocean, the magic of snow, the details of ringlets of hair, or texture of skin. The film is the story, the jokes are the reason, and the fun is what ensues.
So, I’ll say it. I liked it better than Big Hero 6, which I liked. It is actually more fun than I anticipated it being. Great film-making or not, it’s good fun, for which it earns total credit.