Family-friendly animated films are a genre quick to take advantage of marketing tie-ins, and most of the successful modern cartoon franchises have whipped up adorable secondary characters that get plastered all over posters, lunchboxes, and websites. Universal has made Despicable Me’s minions a cornerstone of their marketing, the Ice Age series gave us the acorn-chasing Scrat, and Dreamworks spawned Madagascar’s penguins, four adorable birds so popular they had their own television series, and now, a movie with the obvious title of The Penguins of Madagascar.
The plot, which involves a shape-shifting octopus named Dave (voice of John Malkovich) seeking revenge on the penguins because their cuteness made him an outcast at the zoo, is nothing more than an excuse on which to hang a series of comic action sequences. Along the way, our heroes get help from the North Wind, another four-animal team led by a wolf named Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose competency clashes with the fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants leadership approach taken by penguin Skipper (Tom McGrath).
McGrath, who voiced the character in all of the Madagascar movies (which he also co-directed), understands that the fearless 1940s drill-sergeant voice that gives Skipper his speaking rhythms and gung-ho attitude is inherently amusing and is central to the film’s sense of humor. Skipper’s ceaseless unflappability, even in the face of his own ineptitude, is a simple but solid comedic construct, and it results in some pleasantly silly exchanges with Cumberbatch.
Visually, The Penguins of Madagascar has a workmanlike vibe. There’s little interest in capturing the spirit of the various cities around the world our heroes travel to, although directors Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith deliver inspired gags on a regular basis, and that’s really the point. The script dresses up this series of jokes with a supposed lesson that what you do is more important than how you look, but kids won’t care about that when the silliness level goes into the red during the movie’s opening sequence, a brief origin story featuring a fantastic cameo from Werner Herzog.
That opening is so strong that the rest of the picture never quite measures up to it, but the filmmakers are eager to please throughout. The jokes come fast and furious, but they never seem desperate or lazy, even when they aren’t particularly funny. The result is a movie that will divert little ones while not annoying their parents. It could be better, but as far as obvious attempts to make more money go, it’s devoid of crassness and laziness.