Despite their sidekick status in the three Madagascar movies the quartet of wisecracking penguins became such stars by virtue of their comic antics, it was only a matter of time before some smart-alec studio executive came up with the bright idea of giving them their own spin-off movie. Too bad nobody thought it might be worth fleshing out these characters first.
The Penguins of Madagascar features bumbling foursome Skipper, Kowalski, Rico, and Private in a frenetically paced plot that involves them being pursued by a vengeful scientist-octopus named Dave (John Malkovich). This eight-legged baddie, as it turns out, is nursing a grudge against our heroes for stealing the spotlight and rendering him redundant at Central Park Zoo back in the day. Now he’s invented an elaborate contraption that’ll turn every adorable penguin on the planet into a monstrous mutant. Even as Skipper and his friends race across continents trying to evade their obsessed stalker and simultaneously foil his nefarious plans, they’re one-upped by an international spy squad, led by wolf leader Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), who swoop in and take it upon themselves to stop the purple mollusc.
Aimed primarily at the little ones who’ll be too distracted by the frenzied action scenes to notice the absence of a compelling or even coherent plot, this film doesn’t have the easy charm of the previous Madagascar movies. The protagonists themselves may be cute and cuddly, but they don’t possess the endearing neuroses of Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria. Sure there are a few clever sight gags, but most of the laughs here come from wordplay, mispronunciations, and cheeky puns. Ordering a lackey to nab the penguins, our octopus villain screams at one point: “Nicholas! Cage them!”
Expectedly, it’s Malkovich and Cumberbatch who get the best lines and ample opportunity to have fun with their (voice) parts. But for the latest installment of a much-loved franchise, The Penguins of Madagascar feels surprisingly underwhelming. I’m going with two out of five.