If you start off an animated comedy with Werner Herzog voicing a documentary filmmaker following the "march of the penguins", it's safe to say you're not exactly in kiddie territory. Such has been the modus operandi of Jeffrey Katzenberg's Dreamworks animation studio ever since the beginning, searching to strike the elusive pop-culture balance between kid-friendly fare and a more adult humour that won't chase parents away.
Still, other than the original Shrek (and the short-lived Aardman connection), the now stand-alone company has been hard-pressed to follow those up; nothing else in the studio's output stands up to the almost flawless Pixar 10-year streak of hits that ended with Toy Story 3, despite the box-office success of many of its titles. And Penguins of Madagascar is no classic either.
This lively, boisterous yet underachieving spin-off brings front and center the zanily infuriating gang of penguins that have become the best thing about the hugely popular but generally below-par Madagascar series. But, for my money, it's the most consistent of the films, marrying the pop-culture in-jokes to a surreal, quasi-anarchic Mission: Impossible send-up, its back-and-forth rapid-fire routines giving it a loose Looney Tunes feel.
The tale also gives the four Penguins an "origin story" - with dimwits Kowalski and Rico and the infant Private being dragged out of Antarctica by the pompous, adventure-seeking Skipper - and sets them up for an almost unavoidable sequel. Here, they go head to head with a megalomaniacal über-villain by the name of Dave, an octopus with a chip on his tentacle seeking revenge for all the slights he has endured, and bump heads with the technologically advanced but somewhat clueless 007-meets-RSPCA organization North Wind and its by-the-book lead agent Classified.
A nice touch is that the four Penguins are not voiced (and never have been) by star actors, but instead by an in-house crew of Dreamworks animators: directors Tom McGrath (who helmed all three Madagascar films with Eric Darnell), Chris Miller and Conrad Vernon and editor Christopher Knights. That would probably explain the under-current of classic Chuck Jones/Three Stooges absurdist, non-stop screwball coursing through the film, hitting its peak on the face-offs between Skipper and Classified, a wolf voiced with the right amount of cluelessly un-self-aware pompousness by current It Brit Benedict Cumberbatch. But it's a delightfully playful John Malkovich that almost steals the show as the octopus with delusions of grandeur, his dastardly plan to destroy penguins' inate cuteness coming straight out of campy, pulpy TV classics such as Get Smart or the Adam West-era Batman.
To be sure: Penguins of Madagascar is not a patch on Shrek or even Blue Sky's Rio franchise. Its freewheeling speed and riot of gags has little or no plot to hang on to other than its retro-futurist spy feel, but it's funny enough and aware enough of its own shortcomings to make for a nice second-row addition to the current animation landscape.
PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR
Voice cast Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare, John Malkovich
Directors Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith; screenwriters Michael Colton, John Aboud and Brandon Sawyer; based on a story by Alan Schoolcraft, Brent Simons, Mr. Colton and Mr. Aboud; composer Lorne Balfe; designer Sharon Jeffries; editor Nick Kenway; visual effects Philippe Gluckmann; producers Lara Breay and Mark Swift; production company Dreamworks Animation
Screened November 28th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 11, Lisbon (distributor press screening)