Penguins Of Madagascar
I had relatively happy feelings towards the last of the Madagascar franchise, even if the general premise was being well worn and wringed out. One of the shining lights of the film, and with the others, were the Penguin characters, bit players whose antics could be called upon to fill a hole or provide a needed laugh. Much like the Minions of Despicable Me, the Penguins rapidly become one of the star attractions, and before their yellow skinned contemporaries do the same thing next year, the Penguins have gotten a shot on their own on the big screen (having already done the same on the small one). Worth doing, or just more grist for the mill from Dreamworks?
The Penguins – brash leader Skipper (Tom McGrath), brainy Kowalski (Chris Miller), psychotic Rico (Conrad Vernon) and fresh faced Private (Christopher Knights) – hit out on their own, soon coming into contact with the vengeful Dave (John Malkovich), an octopus seeking redress for the manner in which penguins supplanted his position at a zoo. Alongside Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), the leader of the mysterious North Wind organisation, the Penguins are all that stand between their Antarctic brethren and Dave’s maniacal schemes.
Penguins Of Madagascar pulls little punches about itself, right from the off. One of the very first jokes is about an unfortunate seagull getting eaten alive by sea lions, in-between bouts of mocking both nature documentaries like March Of The Penguins and the parent franchise that birthed this one (I agree, I can’t keep listening to “Move It”). From these beginnings, we leap into a madcap adventure, which is more of a Bond parody than anything else. The tone is set right from the beginning then, as infantile humour meets the blackest of comedy.
There’s a good dynamic at play here. These characters have been around and interacting with each other for a long enough time that a feature film for them is a smooth and seamless comedy machine: Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private all have their roles to play in this ensemble, playing off the others brilliantly, and seeming remarkable comfortable in their characterisation and voice acting. You could imagine these characters as bumbling humans in a Laurel and Hardy-esque thing, so relatablity isn’t a problem.
And that’s all at the heart of this productions manic energy. It’s all so fast paced and frantic, with scenes zipping along so fast, to the point that a brief stopover when characters discuss a plan to stop Dave seems weirdly sluggish in comparison. The jokes are brief and frequently just one-liners, or random observations, or pop culture references and they all just seem to work. And when it comes to the “action”, the craziness of the way new elements are thrown in or thrown by the Penguins, such as in the Venice chase, are enough to make the experience immensely entertaining, sort of like a new age slapstick done through computer animation. As the Penguins take to the streets of Venice in a rowboat, or hop between mid-flight jumbo jets, you can almost hear the strains of “Make ‘Em Laugh!”
And it also just works as a spy satire. Starting off with an unexpectedly intentioned raid on Fort Knox before criss-crossing the globe (all the way to Shanghai’s famed “Little Dublin” district), Penguins Of Madagascar makes sure to pack in as many different locations and zany aside adventures as possible. Dave’s character and plots are insane and over the top, in all of the right ways (if maybe taking too much of a cue from Despicable Me 2), and his cackling laugher is ably matched by the M-like character of Classified, the straight man to Skipper’s hilariously annoying distraction. So fun and engaging are those sections, that some of the more cliché ridden moments, like coming of age stuff with Private, actually fail to land as well as they possibly could have. Films like this, for some reason, seem to require what you might call a “heart”, defined as a soppy friendship sub-plot, or something of that nature. Penguins Of Madagascar is doing a little better when it just focuses on the craziness.
As mentioned, the voice acting for the central four is great (or, at least, three. Rico doesn’t talk much). There’s something weirdly endearing about the voices, Skipper’s 40’s style leader, Kowalski’s smart man pastiche and Private’s achingly cute young blood, all of which are done with suitable enthusiasm and genuineness. On the guest front, Malkovich and Cumberbatch are plainly exulting in roles where they are able to have a bit more fun than usual, Malkovich especially great as the unhinged Dave.
Visually, as you would expect from a studio as accomplished and experienced as Dreamworks Animation (or, at least, they were, I can’t comment on the rounds of lay-offs recently), Penguins Of Madagascar is a explosively colourful production. The action scenes are immensely diverse, fast paced and entertaining, with the “camerawork” zipping and zooming through environments of rapid change and rapid-fire jokes. The buffoonery is never ending, that is largely seen in the visual side of things, where the break neck pace barely allows one the opportunity to catch a breath before the next set-piece sequence, the next chase scene, the next joke.
The script is great. As already mentioned, the jokes come thick and fast, but the recurring ones – Skipper’s constant forgetting of Dave’s name (“Deedee!” “Dave…” “Dave!), the celebrity namedrops by Dave (“Nicholas, Cage them!”), or North Wind’s incompetence (“Release the sheep…”) – are just as good, the sort of fire and forget style of comedy that is perfect for this kind of film. The referential stuff – like Werner Herzog’s amoral documentarian at the beginning – and the dark stuff – that poor seagull – are purely for the adults in the audience, and while it is practically par for the course that a film like this include that element, I have rarely seen the blend of child and adult humour enacted so effectively. In fact, Penguins Of Madagascar almost seems to have more humour aimed at the older viewer than the younger.
Penguins Of Madagascar, while never really threatening to get too deep, is a wonderful piece of distraction entertainment, I don’t know if I’ll remember any of it this time next year, and there does seem to be one of these films every 12 months or so (Despicable Me 2 last year). But, for 90 minutes of decent jokes and visual fireworks, I’m happy saying that this is worth the price of admission. The story is shallow as hell, but the VA, the visuals and the script are a step above Madagascar in most respects. I film I would recommend, especially as simple Christmas time fare.
(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).