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Penguins of Madagascar Review: "Cute and Cuddly" All the Way

Penguins of Madagascar makes a strong case for cute and cuddliness.

If you've been reading SJF for any time period, you know my affection for the inoffensive animated comedy. Easy on the eyes for the young-ins and usually filled with pop trash zaniness for the adults, the genre has hit its stride over the past year, delivering hits like The LEGO Movie and Mr. Peabody and Sherman with cool efficiency. The Penguins of Madagascar has all the pieces for similar success, delivering the fun of the television show and emphatically placing them above their New York Zoo brethren.

Part origin story, Penguins begins with our favorite flightless birds Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon) and the newly-hatched Private (Christopher Knights), whom the other dub as their 'brother.' Impulsive and frankly militant, the Penguins escape their frozen Arctic confines to become the darlings of the New York Zoo, turning one of their habitation mates Dave (John Malkovich) into a brilliant but psychotic villain. The octopus has been promised revenged against all penguins by developing The Medusa Serum, sparking the attention the rival spy network North Wind, led by the debonair wolf Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch). His team includes a seal (Ken Jeong), a polar bear (Peter Stormare), and an exotic, sexy owl (Annet Mahendru), all of whom travel around with fancy James Bond-like gadgets. Initially unwilling to share in each other's glory, North Wind and the Penguins set off to defeat Dave before he can unleash the Serum and bring all of Penguin Nation to their knees.

Penguins succeeds in a different way than others in the genre have done: sure, it's got the (mostly) excellent voice casting that every successful animated movie needs, but it also wins because it knows exactly what it is. This isn't the terse, tear-jerker Toy Story 3, but a zany, witty comedy that knows just how ridiculous it is. That's a trademark honed from the television series, which represents one of the best animated comedies ever. I'm not kidding: watch the first season and tell me you didn't laugh hysterically throughout. Flightless birds who use Kung-Fu to achieve their goals? Check. Over-plotted plans to solve this week's caper? Check. Flinging poo, soda bottle rocket packs, and an ever-increasingly oppressive Lemur king? Television majesty!

Penguins goes merely beyond the cute and cuddly to deliver (mostly) excellent vocal performances. Whereas the Madagascar team of Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria have always felt staged and stodgy, our penguin crew voices are more dynamic, perhaps honing them during the three seasons which aired on Nickelodeon. My only concern is that the movie voice of Kowalski has been replaced from the television version, a move I think based on who got there first when Madagascar the movie was originally conceived. Having said that, Miller still doesn't feel right (nor has he ever), and his rather flat delivery results in too many uneven exchanges between frankly better voice actors. I hope that logic and pressure from fans will allow the real Kowalski (Jeff Bennett) to return in future films to ink this franchise in box office gold.

Cumberbach is delightfully sophisticated, making his case to one day portray James Bond, but there's not enough of the high-spun Jeong, nor of anyone else in North Wind outside of Classified. Too bad, because its 92-minute runtime could have done more beyond the funny facial gestures and good one-liners that are dropped in front of us like bread crumbs. North Wind is the professional antithesis of the Penguins, although it would have been fun to see an Avengers-like brawl before the teams made up to defeat Dave. But the slapstick by a team of five writers including John Aboud will keep the kids entertained while the parents will find plenty of social humor to keep them laughing. Usually, that many chiefs in the kitchen doesn't favor the foolish, but Madagascar Director Eric Darnell and Shrek alum Simon J. Smith keep the story moving with an effective mix of silly spycraft and social commentary.

Penguins is a straight-up, fun romp with heroes who have no clue and are OK in their blissful ignorance. Where else can you find a William Shatner-esque leader in a penguin suit destroying English slang, with lines like "Parker Posey!" and "Venetian Blinded, AGAIN!" when his team is thwarted by Dave in Italy. Our villain isn't much smarter, with Malkovich confidently bellowing, "Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go shopping: for REVENGE!!" And even Cumberbatch gets involved by reminding Skipper that, "No one breaks the Wind." It's all very on-the-nose, with great shtick spy music by Composer Lorne Balfe, and a general sense that none of these super agents would last 5 minutes in the real world. Dave is not a particularly original villain, and there's a lack of female leads, but we're here to be entertained, and entertained we are.

Some might claim that Penguins of Madagascar succeeds only because so much on the big screen today fails: ridiculous. It's sweet, charming, and filled with everything the Madagascar movies never had when the boys weren't front and center. This town is officially too big now for its name, and it's time to see the break we all could see from the moment Skipper and his gang arrived. I guarantee you that the other will be hard-pressed to match the results delivered here.

Penguins of Madagascar is rated PG for mild action and some rude humor and has a runtime of 92 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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