“PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR” — ★★★ — voices of Tom McGrath, John Malkovich, Chris Miller, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Stormare, Werner Herzog; PG (for mild action and some rude humor); in general release
The plot of “Penguins of Madagascar” often feels like it’s being made up on the spot. After a quick prologue that takes four young penguins from their Antarctic home on a floating chunk of ice, a flash-forward shows them as a crack team of super-thieves, intent on breaking into Fort Knox to steal the last vending machine on earth that sells Cheezy Dibbles.
Of course, once they get to the machine, it sprouts tentacles and whisks the team off to meet their arch nemesis — a googly eyed octopus named Dave.
It sounds ridiculous on paper and looks manic on the big screen, but it’s also a lot of fun. If your children aren’t old enough for the postapocalyptic place holder that is the new Hunger Games movie, or the grandiosity of Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” “Penguins of Madagascar” might be your family ticket for a Thanksgiving weekend movie.
“Penguins” feels sharp, clever and fresh, which is surprising given that it is a spinoff of a three-film franchise that’s nearly a decade old. It’s built around the four penguins from Dreamworks’ Madagascar franchise. (If newcomers were wondering why a film called "Penguins of Madagascar" spent exactly zero minutes of screen time in Madagascar, there's your answer.) And though it lacks the star power of its predecessors, “Penguins” makes up for it in other areas.
For their first solo effort, Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath) and his three flightless comrades have to face off with Dave (John Malkovich). Dave is an octopus with a grudge. He used to be the toast of the zoo until the penguins stole his thunder with their unrelenting cuteness.
Dave’s jealousy eventually birthed an insidious plan: Kidnap penguins from zoos all around the world and then use something called the Medusa Serum to turn them all into ugly mutants.
Resourceful as they may be, the penguins are a bit outmatched against Dave and his legions of highly amusing octopuses. But luckily, Skipper and Co. aren’t the only crew standing in Dave’s way: The North Wind — a squad of Arctic-based heroes led by a wolf named Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch) — is also after Public Enemy Octopus No. 1.
This all adds up to a chaotic mess that wins viewers over with personality and some excellent animation. The penguin Rico rarely utters a sound (though Conrad Vernon gets a voice credit) but gets big laughs as the gang’s living toolbox, storing everything from snow globes to dynamite in his endless gullet. Dave’s octopus minions are also especially fun, and a running gag of celebrity puns — “Nicholas! Cage them!” — is amusing where it could have been merely tedious.
On that note, sometimes it feels like “Penguins” is leaning hard toward impressing (or at least engaging) its adult audience with puns and in-jokes that will sail over the heads of its younger audience members. (Watch for a clever “Planet of the Apes” tribute in the third act.) But even if the humor is a little too smart and a tad too vulgar for the G-rated crowd, “Penguins” should still be a safe option for the whole family.
It isn’t this year’s “Frozen,” and it won’t be breaking any box-office records, but it’s a fun ride. It’s also available in 3-D, though the best parts of the movie don’t depend on the enhanced format.
“Penguins of Madagascar” is rated PG for mild action and some rude humor; running time: 92 minutes
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.