Penguins of Madagascar are the type of sure-footed, wise-cracking, fun-filled side plot characters that bring a movie to life. In write-ups and post-cinema pub discussions, they are often a high-point and a source of crucial laughs in an otherwise average movie. (FYC: Lego Batman as the break-out supporting character of 2014). If they were sitcom characters, there would be howls of canned applause when they appear; if this were an adult comedy, they would have the filthiest mouth and loosest morals. The original animals of Madagascar were all sanitized versions of Woody Allen’s brand of neurosis and the penguins were a breath of arctic air. Here the penguins get a solo outing and the movie falls comfortably into a perfectly acceptable bout of fun. (They have also earned their own TV show so have cornered the spin-off market well).
A full fleshing-out in a feature-length movie could be an undoing of any good will (ala The Scorpion King, Evan Almighty, every Wolverine movie) or build their comedy credentials in a smart way. Thankfully, this effort is a successful one. Four movies into the Madagascar franchise and there is still enough freshness to temper any cynicism, even if they do go back to the well of spoofing Bond. The story has the penguins get flipper-deep in a plot to save the world but your primary concern won’t be the high and lows of plot, but the extremes of silliness. The movie is a bit like the hyperventilating child sitting a few rows away from you in the cinema; exhausted and hyper all at once, overdosing-on-Skittles hilarious. The pacing and gag rate steam-iron most of the ruffles, in particular running gags punning on actors names. Of course the crucial strength is the penguins, their camaraderie and individual contributions.
The voice talent is pitch-perfect, with Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich making real contributions other than just being names to line the poster. It was Dreamworks after all that led the way on casting star voices, but still wisely always drew from comedy talent. Comedy is never easily pitched, and heading into a drama heavy Oscar season, Penguins of Madagascar does bring the fun. There is little to question or doubt here other than to wonder what took so long to give the penguins their day in the sun.