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THE PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR take center stage after supplying comic relief to the Madagascar franchise, and prove that they are superstars. Skipper, Kowalski, Rico, and Private get backstories, a crackerjack adventure that never slows down, and goofy brand of humor heavy on silliness and puns. Wicked puns. Visual and verbal.
We start with the early days, as Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalksi (Chris Miller), and Rico (Conrad Verson) question the lock-step life of the other penguins as the South Pole and choose a life of questioning authority. They also acquire Private (Christopher Knights), the egg that got away only to find a family with three defiantly ridiculous misfits who may not have a clue between them, but make up for it with giddy enthusiasm, a highly developed sense of melodrama, and an entirely unreasonable optimism. After the antics of the three Madagascar films, the guys are ready to strike out on their own, and away from the bouncy theme song that is slowly driving Skipper to madness. They are also looking to give Private a special birthday present in the form of their favorite, and sadly out of production, snack food: the Cheezy Dibble.
Alas, the crunchy mass of non-nutritious chemicals lurks in a vending machine that is not what it seems to be, and so the flightless but plucky birds head to Venice, Shanghai, and New York with a newly discovered cephalopod nemesis, Dave (loopily menacing John Malkovich), an octopus bent on revenge for being forced to play second-fiddle to the penguins innate cuteness. They also cross paths with North Wind, an interspecies task force whose mission is to rescue helpless creatures, while also sneering at their helplessness. Well, that last part is the personal touch added by Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), the smooth, suave, and endlessly capable wolf in charge. It’s an attitude shared by the seal pup, Short Fuse (Ken Jeong) and Eva (Annet Mahendru), the sultry snowy owl who steals Kowalski’s heart. On the other hand, Corporal (Peter Stormare), the polar bear, can’t resist the penguins’ cuddliness. All of which gives Skipper a slow burn.
The humor here is not the most sophisticated, but it is clever, inventive, and done with a delicious sang-froid. Dave’s octopi minions are rendered to show of that creature’s essential plasticity, and it’s complex emotional landscape, with Dave’s scene-chewing balanced by his palpable, even poignant, sense of insecurity.
THE PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR is a good-natured exercise in high-adventure and unabashed fun for its own sake. Aimed more at kids than adults, there are, nonetheless, delightfully grown-up touches, including a deliciously off-the-wall cameo from Werner Herzog as an unscrupulously ambitions naturalist, to keep everyone laughing.