Frenetic and frequently funny, Penguins Of Madagascar represents the DreamWorks Animation franchise style—which boils down to self-aware, but naïve, talking animals who learn kid-friendly life lessons—at its most palatable. Indebted more to the wackiness of old Warner Bros. shorts than to the realist Pixar sensibility that informs most American animated features, Penguins is packed with gags and moves with the kind of gummy elasticity—the stuff of eye-pops, anvil drops, and giant mallets pulled out of nowhere—that’s become awfully rare in the age of computer animation.
The last Madagascar feature, Europe’s Most Wanted, was an unlikely high-water mark for the DreamWorks brand of animated comedy, a hyperactive romp that took the studio’s usual combination of dated pop-culture references and on-the-nose music cues and turned them into something genuinely fun and deeply weird. However, the franchise had started adopting full-tilt cartooniness—embracing its inner Fast & Furious, in other words—years before with The Penguins Of Madagascar, a Nickelodeon spin-off series centered on a quartet of paramilitary penguins. (Though it shares its protagonists and title, give or take an article, with the series, the feature is essentially unrelated.)
Here, any pretense of pathos, which has never DreamWorks’ strong suit, is dropped in favor of physics-defying pursuits, bizarre plot turns, and nonstop punchlines. Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (the Chris Miller who directed Puss In Boots, not the one who co-directed The Lego Movie), Rico (Conrad Vernon), and Private (Christopher Knights) must race to stop the villainous cephalopod Dave (John Malkovich) and his army of color-changing octopodes from exacting revenge against penguins. (Their motivation: jealousy over the attention given to penguins at zoos and aquaria.)
This chase flick plot provides a loose framework for parodies and bravura set pieces: an extended riff on Encounters At The End Of The World, complete with Werner Herzog as the narrator; a terrifying-if-you-think-about-it sequence in which the penguins smash into one jetliner after another after plummeting out of a cargo plane; scenes with a secret task force of arctic animals—led by a wolf voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who appears to have been cast based on his inability to pronounce “penguin”—that parody the Space Age designs and chugging guitar score of X-Men: First Class; a chase across the canals, streets, and roofs of Venice, with the penguins’ invertebrate pursuers forced to use gondola oars as stilts to get around on land. The references skew more esoteric and grown-up than anything in the DreamWorks Animation oeuvre; combined with the penguins’ constant scheming and planning, they bring to mind Pinky And The Brain. Of course, there’s a kid-friendly lesson in there—something about all-knowing Skipper learning to take cute-as-a-button Private seriously—but it’s lost amid all the blackout gags, delayed reveals, self-aware references, and cartoon-logic showdowns. Not that anyone will mind.