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Penguins of Madagascar

D: Eric Darnell, Simon J. Smith / 92m

Cast: Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare

Antarctica: three wilful penguins, Skipper (McGrath), Kowalski (Miller) and Rico (Vernon) rescue an egg from an abandoned ship full of leopard seals. The egg hatches to reveal a baby penguin they call Private (Knights). After seeing off the seals they find themselves adrift on a small patch of ice.

Ten years later – and following on from the events in Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (2012) – the team decide to leave the circus. They break into Fort Knox so that they can celebrate Private’s birthday by treating him to some Cheezy Dibbles, a snack that has been discontinued but which can still be found in one of the Reserve’s vending machines. However, the vending machine proves to be a trap and the team are kidnapped by Dave (Malkovich), an octopus bent on revenge against all penguins thanks to his treatment in various zoos where they were the star attraction and not him.

The penguins escape his clutches and find themselves in Venice. Cornered by Dave’s squid “henchmen”, they find themselves rescued by members of the North Wind, a secret, undercover, inter-species task force dedicated to bringing animal villains to justice. Led by Agent Classified (Cumberbatch), they view Skipper and the gang as unreliable and refuse to team up with them; instead they have the gang transported to one of their remote bases (ironically, on Madagascar). But the gang escape and make their way to Shanghai where they manage to capture Dave. He escapes though, and manages to kidnap all the city zoo’s penguins, and Private as well. At his remote island base, Dave shows Private his plan to use a Medusa serum on all the world’s penguins, and which will turn them all into horrible, mutated creatures.

Meanwhile, the penguins and the North Wind argue about the best course of action. They do agree to attempt a rescue mission but are all captured. Private manages to free the North Wind but instead of freeing the penguins they depart for reinforcements. With Dave heading for New York City to release the Medusa-affected penguins on an unsuspecting public, it’s up to Private to find a way of saving his friends, and all the other penguins as well.

Penguins of Madagascar - scene

With Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private proving the most popular characters in the Madagascar franchise, it was inevitable that after several short movies and their own TV show, that a feature-length movie would happen eventually (in fact it’s been on the drawing board since 2005). Thankfully, all the well established quirks and traits of the characters have been retained, along with their Bond-style theatrics, and at the service of a half-decent plot that, while not entirely too imaginative, still makes for a lot of fun and keeps the movie entertaining as a whole.

There’s a lot going on in Penguins of Madagascar: it’s an origin story (not that it was really needed), a revenge tale, a spy caper, a personal empowerment yarn (Private feels like a lesser member of the team because he doesn’t have a specific skill), and a family saga. Mixing all these elements could have led to the movie having an identity crisis, but under the auspices of Darnell and Smith, the movie weaves these various strands to such good effect that each one plays out with to its full potential. It’s good to see so many elements in a movie given enough space to work effectively, and not feel under-developed. And even if these elements are entirely familiar or lack a degree of originality, there’s enough verve and vitality about them to offset any disappointment.

With a lot going on, there’s also a lot to enjoy, though some of it – such as the inclusion of several movie star names amongst Dave’s instructions to his squid squad, e.g. “Nicolas! Cage them!” – may require repeat viewings to fully appreciate or pick up on. (There’s been some criticism that with so much going on this leads to some of the humour being hit and miss, that if one joke fails it’s not a problem as there’ll be another one along in a minute. Not to be too obvious about it, but it’s a rare movie that has a 100% hit rate when it comes to jokes or visual humour.) But as with most big budget studio animation these days, it’s all part of the enjoyment to be had, with references for kids and adults alike, making the movie work on several levels, and providing entertainment for as broad an age range as possible.

Whatever your reaction to the material may be, Penguins of Madagascar is still a fast, funny, visually inventive movie that is a treat to watch. The glossy, vibrant animation is sharp and richly detailed, and has a spirited zest to it that makes watching the movie a complete pleasure. From the crisp whiteness of Antarctica, to the  bright, colourful showdown in New York City, this is animation that zings and pops off the screen with fizzy, glorious abandon. The various set pieces are handled with skill and imagination, and the characters are so cleverly drawn and animated that certain habits almost go unnoticed (Agent Classified can’t say “penguin”; instead he says “pengwings”). With so much going on visually, it’s fitting that the voice cast is able to match the animators with their performances. Cumberbatch and Malkovich are great choices, their vocal styles complementing their characters’ looks perfectly and adding a further layer of richness to the proceedings. As the titular team, McGrath (who created the characters), Miller, Knights and Vernon have been doing this for so long that they don’t put a flipper wrong throughout, and there’s solid support from the likes of Jeong and Stormare (and yes, the documentary filmmaker at the beginning is Werner Herzog; who knew he liked penguins so much?).

It looks like it’ll be a while before we see Skipper and the gang again – not until Madagascar 4 reaches us in 2018 – but for now this outing for the spy-centric birds acts as a wonderfully anarchic, hugely enjoyable showcase for their particular brand of well-meaning chaos. Heartwarming at times, highly silly at others, and with something for everyone packed into its ninety-two minute running time, this is an exuberant, rewarding di-version (or should that be div-ersion?) that succeeds admirably in expanding the world of four very individual penguins.

Rating: 8/10 – glorious fun throughout, Penguins of Madagascar is another sure-fire success from Dreamworks Animation; it may lack depth and play fast-and-loose with subtlety – “No one breaks the Wind” – but as an exercise in well-crafted lunacy, this fits the bill entirely.