DreamWorks Animation has been having a hard time lately. After they delayed "How to Train Your Dragon 3" and reshuffled their release schedule (something that promoted our analysis of the situation), even more woe befell them. Stock prices plummeted after a series of proposed mergers embarrassingly fell apart (including, most recently, a deal with toy giant Hasbro), and an underwhelming slate of upcoming features has left many cold. But good news may be coming for the studio (and its beleaguered, embittered head Jeffrey Katzenberg) in the form of this week's "The Penguins of Madagascar," a spin-off of the popular "Madagascar" series, that is an entertaining holiday treat, and one of the better efforts DreamWorks has released in recent years.
For those without small children (or the childlike tastes of this reviewer), the titular aquatic birds played a small but integral role in the "Madagascar" films, as a squadron of elite spies who got into their own series of misadventures (usually happening concurrently with the movies' main through line). There's Skipper (Tom McGrath), the leader of the penguins; Kowalski (Chris Miller), described as the "brains" of the operation by Skipper; Rico (Conrad Vernon), a wordless wildcard; and Private (Christopher Knights), the youngest member of the team (as well as the cutest). When the movie opens, the penguins are just youngsters in Antarctica, dreaming of something more while being narrated by a documentary film team (led by Werner Herzog—yes, it's really him, and yes, it is glorious), before zooming forward to where we last left them, at the tail end of the third "Madagascar" movie.
From there the movie spins off wildly on its own. One of the true strokes of genius with "Penguins of Madagascar" is that, unlike in the "Madagascar" movies, where their antics are treated as something fantastical, maybe even delusional, here their spy missions are legitimized. They are real. And it makes the tone of the movie closer to something like a James Bond movie as animated by Chuck Jones. This is especially true when a bunch of new characters enter the fray, an elite team of animal secret agents called the North Wind, led by a white wolf named Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), and including a seal named Short Fuse (Ken Jeong), a snowy owl named Eva (Annet Mahendru), and a giant polar bear named Corporal (Peter Stormare). Classified thinks that the penguins aren't up to the challenge of stopping an octopus madman named Dave (John Malkovich), but the little black-and-white birds are out to prove him wrong.
The skeletal plot, as much as there is one, only serves as a loose housing for a nonstop barrage of gags. (For those who are curious, evil octopus Dave wants to turn every penguin in the world into a horribly unlovable monster… or something.) Unmoored from the continuity and narrative demands of the main franchise, "Penguins of Madagascar" flourishes. In zany set piece after zany set piece, the movie sets itself apart as willing to try anything, do anything for laugh, and it succeeds more often than it fails, even when falling back on some creaky wordplay and the occasional over-emphasis on both fart gags and pop culture references (both of which are hallmarks of DreamWorks Animation).
But even at its most bizarrely unhinged, there is a kind of spiritual purity to "Penguins of Madagascar." There are few animated films released these days whose sole purpose is to amuse. But that's all that "Penguins of Madagascar" wants. Sure, there are some timely themes about becoming an important member of the team (and achieving the recognition that goes along with that) that actually add some texture and dimension, but for the most part this is a lark. It's wonderfully cartoony, meant to dazzle and entertain, especially in the studio's format of choice, 3D, and this is no more apparent than in a sequence where the penguins jettison themselves from a cargo plane, bouncing around on different airplanes and careening through the sky, in one single, unbroken take.
For the most part, the studio's current woes remain unseen in "Penguins of Madagascar," although it's hard not to read into Skipper's words of wisdom about being scared to fail, and impossible to overlook the fact that a huge sequence is set in China, where DreamWorks Animation has a lucrative partnership (and separate animation unit). These characters have always been hugely important to the studio (in the first film Katzenberg voiced Rico), with an animated television series, short films, and Christmas specials all devoted to them, and this seems like the ultimate celebration of their contribution to making DreamWorks Animation what it is today (whatever that might be).
In fact, if there's one huge problem with "Penguins of Madagascar," it's that the new characters take too much screen time away from the penguins. Cumberbatch is a perfect comedic foil, puffed up by his own importance, and the presence of the North Wind somehow both legitimizes the penguins' endeavors while also undercutting it, but these new characters are woefully under-developed and their comparative straightness takes some of the air out of the movie. But overall, "Penguins of Madagascar" is quick, silly, and enjoyable, which is about all you could ask for. [B]