WARNING: LIGHT SPOILERS FOLLOW
It only took five minutes for Penguins of Madagascar to convince me that it wasn’t what I expected it to be. After repeatedly seeing the terribly unfunny trailers (gosh, those trailers were awful) and the Penguins-themed “Don’t text in the theater” ads before every movie for the past month or so, I had grown very tired of the little flipper-bearing tikes. That being said, as the movie opened to the icy surfaces of Antarctica and introduced us to the waddly-waddling migrating penguins, it had already won me over. In the story, amidst the majority of mindlessly wandering walking, talking birds are three young adventurous ones (Skipper, Kowalski, and Rico). They want to know why the others of their kind are marching in a straight line to seemingly nowhere. At one point one of them asks the adult penguin in front of him only to get a clueless and careless, “I don’t know” in response. Out of frustration, one of the penguins mentions that their kind exist and thrive from their adorableness, which explains why film crews are always following them. At this moment, the camera pans back to reveal a film crew documenting them. A few minutes later, as the three penguins are devising a plan to rescue the egg after it falls off a cliff, the camera crew is shown again, the penguins’ dialogue inaudible as a man narrates the events through a microphone for the film/video/documentary/whatever. It’s a brilliant opening scene, one that puts any fear of the movie sucking to rest with a firm and funny hand. The only way it could have been better is if the narrator had been Morgan Freeman. Now that would’ve been stupendous.
I would be lying if I said that the movie gets better from there, because it doesn’t. But the good news is that it doesn’t get worse either. Those fun, funny, and adventurous first few minutes adequately remain intact for the remaining hour and a half. The egg that the little guys were chasing hatches in the beginning to reveal Private, the small, chubby, adorable penguin that has some self-esteem issues. These self-esteem issues come ten years after the hatching, which is where our story picks up. Each of the penguins has a knack for something. Skipper (Tom McGrath) is the leader of the team, Kowalski (Chris Miller) is the smartest, and Rico (Conrad Vernon) is the arsenal specialist. Private (Christopher Knights) is just cute and bubbly. It messes with his head, but they all have one thing in common: they love Cheesy Dibbles (they’re like Cheese Puffs or Cheetos). The story kicks into gear when the penguins decide to celebrate Private’s birthday by breaking into Fort Knox to steal some Cheesy Dibbles (they’ve been discontinued, you see, so the only option they have is break into the one place that still has them.) After a Mission: Impossible-like scene, the team is kidnapped by Dave (John Malkovich), an octopus who used to be loved at the zoo until the arrival of the no good dirty rotten penguins. Dave has lived in the shadow of the birds long enough, and now he seeks his revenge, and it involves a big sci-fi-blaster-ray-thingy (it always does) that can turn penguins into disgusting creatures and all of that cool stuff.
It’s all pretty cool. Really, it is. Maybe I liked this movie so much because I was expecting so much worse. Trailers can indeed be misleading, but this is a case where I’m appreciative of that. There’s nothing like going into a movie that the trailers make look terrible (or sometimes just generic and bland) and being pleasantly surprised when actually watching it. Another film that had that effect this year was the Doug Liman-directed Edge of Tomorrow. It’s always great, and this movie is a great case of that. I’m not a huge fan of the Madagascar movies (in fact, I’ve only seen the first one), but this movie is fine as a standalone film, much like Puss in Boots. I think I may have enjoyed this movie more than Madagascar, but then again, it’s been a pretty long time since I’ve seen that one. I may have to revisit it sometime soon.
Once the penguins are kidnapped and have their altercation with Dave, other things do happen. One such thing is the introduction of “The North Wind,” a Canadian undercover interspecies task force consisting of the leader, a wolf named Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), a harp seal named Short Fuse (Ken Jeong), a polar bear named Corporal (Peter Stormare), and a snowy owl named Eva (Annet Mahendru). This team provided some good character interplay and some fun scenes, and I can’t get over my love for Cumberbatch. His voice work (and everyone’s really) was terrific. Other things happen as well, such as a tremendous chase scene in the heart of Venice that is thrilling enough to keep kids and adults on edge, and also a scene later in the film that has the penguins falling to the earth and facing obstacles on the way down that may be even more impressive. The final twenty minutes or so did feel like they went on forever and I did just want the thing to end, but you know what? This movie is surprisingly good. It’s funny, cheery, sweet, and overall, it’s just fun movie escapism that’ll entertain the kids and still leave a little room for the parents to get in as well. If you see Penguins of Madagascar advertised this holiday season and think it looks terrible, don’t believe it. Take the family out and watch it. You’ll have a blast.
Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor
Starring Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon, Christopher Knights, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch
Directed by Simon J. Smith and Eric Darnell