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Non-Review Review: The Penguins of Madagascar

The Penguins of Madagascar is solid family entertainment. It does not rank among the best of Dreamworks’ animated output, nor among the year’s best animated films. However it is a fun adventure movie that moves along at just the right pace – allowing a number of action set-pieces and a solid cast carry most of the weight. The Penguins of Madagascar is fun and solid; it is arguably more fun and more solid than any of the three Madagascar movies that spawned this spin-off.

The Penguins of Madagascar is just what the doctor ordered with the holiday season approaching. It is a film that makes for a solid family diversion, a movie that will appeal to kids without pandering too heavily, and will acknowledge the adults in the audience without losing focus. It is an enjoyable romp, one that delivers almost perfectly on what it sets out to do. It isn’t transcendental or brilliant in the way that The Lego Movie was, but it is more than merely functional.

Cheesy? Sure.

Cheesy? Sure.

The strength of The Penguins of Madagascar is that it never demands to be taken seriously. It hits all of the expected plot and emotional beats that one might expect in a film like this, but it never lingers too long on them. There are moments in the script that might have been mined for pathos or angst, but The Penguins of Madagascar is shrewd enough to realise that these four broadly-drawn archetypes cannot really support that level of depth. So the movie never burdens them with too much emotional weight.

Essential character moments are handled with a ruthless efficiency. After all, the four lead penguins are not so much fully-formed characters as a collection of roughly-sketched character traits. Skipper is the arrogant and foolhardy leader of the group. Kowalski is the smart and socially awkward member of the team. The near-silent Rico is the “demolitions expert”, who suffers from a bad case of Pica. Private is the youngest member of the group who feels like his colleagues never take him seriously.

In the same boat...

In the same boat…

When one of the four leads is placed in peril – as is all but expected in a story like this – The Penguins of Madagascar never languishes in the guilt of the rest of the team or the fear of the captive. Skipper inevitably learns humility. Private gradually becomes comfortable with his place in the ensemble. Other movies might bask in these big character moments; the heart of a film about the notion of “family” and “inclusion”, they might easily merit a montage or a musical number. Instead, The Penguins of Madagascar just gets them done.

The “heart” of The Penguins of Madagascar lies more in the action and comedy set pieces, which move at a delightful pace. The movie’s five-man writing team very cleverly and very shrewdly structure the film as an homage to classic action thrillers like the James Bond films. The influence can be felt throughout the film, right down the prominent casting of sophisticated British actor Benedict Cumberbatch as a top-ranking intelligence operative with a host of snazzy gadgets and gizmos.

Tabling this discussion for later...

Tabling this discussion for later…

Indeed, John Malkovich is even cast in the same sort of Bond villain pastiche that he played in Johnny English. In this case, he is a mad scientist and philanthropist fond of puns and wordplay with a snazzy submarine lair and an evil plan… who is also an Octopus. “David the Octopus” (also known as “Dave”) has a festering bitterness inside, contempt for cute animals like penguins who steal attention from more deserving and less adorable creatures. As you might expect, it is time for revenge.

So, having clearly watched one too many Bond films, Dave has created the persona of “regular NPR fund donor” Doctor Octavius Brine and built a submarine in his own octopod image. Malkovich and the animators do great work with Dave, creating a manic and absurd villain who fits quite comfortably with the world around him. The Penguins of Madagascar is not a movie that stops to explain how Dave has learned to speak English or how nobody has stumbled on to his secret, because that is all beside the point.

Under cover...

Under cover…

The Penguins of Madagascar revels in its action sequences that seem to draw primarily from the Roger Moore Bond films. This seems to be a logical tone for a movie like The Penguins of Madagascar to strike. Highlights include a number of nods to Moonraker, including a high-intensity (and visually rich) skydiving sequence and the movie’s own take on the “hover gondola” from one of Moonraker‘s more absurd chase sequences. Indeed, one could argue that The Penguins of Madagascar offer a much more convincing take on that set piece.

The movie is helped by its wry and absurdist sense of humour, which keeps things from ever slowing down too much. The four leads play well off one another, and the joke of an elite unit of penguins is enough to sustain the movie across its runtime. In particular, David’s army of octopus henchmen are a frequent source of laughs, whether it is chasing an accordion or simple setting up witty name-dropping for David’s quick orders. It helps that the creatures lend themselves to physical comedy, with with long tentacles, lack of rigid bone structure and bulbous heads.

Birds of a feather...

Birds of a feather…

The Penguins of Madagascar is effective family entertainment. It is solidly constructed, and well made. It does what it sets out to do well enough, even if it does not quite hit the heights that audiences have come to occasionally expect from animated films.

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