How come the more we love a set of animated characters, the more its creators try to milk their popularity until no one wants to see them anymore? Are these anthropomorphic birds the trend-setter? Is this destined to happen with the Minions from the Despicable Me movies? I can only speculate.
Everyone loved the penguins in the first Madagascar movie. Since then, the penguins have starred in two Madagascar sequels, one spin-off short, a cartoon series, and numerous video games. Not enough? Well you’re in luck because here comes their full feature-length film: Penguins of Madagascar, co-starring a wolf voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch because why not?
The main characters, I’m sure you recall, are a foursome of penguins who are essentially miniature secret agents with all types of skills and tough fighting moves. We got commander Skipper (voiced by franchise co-creator Tom McGrath), smart guy Kowalski (Chris Miller), awkward rookie Private (Christopher Knights), and psychotic demolitions expert Rico (Conrad Vernon), all ready to fight more crime. But there’s a new group in town, seemingly more advanced and equipped than our black-and-white heroes. This group is known as the North Wind and they are led by a wolf named, ahem, Classified (voice by Cumberbatch). The remaining members of North Wind include a polar bear voiced by Peter Stormare, a seal voiced by Ken Jeong, and an owl voiced by Annet Mahendru. The two teams try to work together but rivalry shortly emerges between their leaders when they cannot agree on the best way to take down a newly discovered villain, who becomes their common enemy.
The villain is an octopus voiced by John Malkovich (I just love the sentences that this line of work permits me to form), who has a human disguise known as “Dr. Octavius”. I’ve spent hours trying to remember which comic book franchise this reminds me of but I just can’t place it. In any case, he has a history with the penguins. He used to be the main attraction at Central Park Zoo until the four of them came along and stole his thunder, which led him to pursue a life of super-villainy. Again, why not?
Most of the classic Madagascar characters are omitted from this film. The four “leading animals” are all gone, the chimp twins are gone, and the lemur King Julien, although briefly present at the end, is sadly not voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen this time around. Julien, like the penguins, is another Madagascar side-character that’s starting to feel overrated and trite so I can see why Cohen’s grown tired of him.
On top of having main characters which are beginning to feel like they’ve over-stayed their welcome, as well as a hugely generic story, the movie always seems eager to reach a point of hasty action and lots of noises. It doesn’t offer much space for all the new characters to grow into something memorable that doesn’t have something to do with their, I’ll admit, pretty fun designs. Know this: I won’t accuse this film of being as offensively noisy and ADD-ridden as something like Ice Age 4, but I still feel like this film is a sign that the Dreamworks which many of us know and love aren’t as edgy or memorable as of late (or at least as edgy and memorable as you’re realistically capable of being after having barfed out the likes of Shark Tale and Shrek 3).
I am reviewing Penguins of Madagascar in 2015 but it was originally released in 2014, a year where, excluding How To Train Your Dragon 2, things weren’t looking too good in the Dreamworks track record. I found Peabody & Sherman to be a highly forgettable movie and, alas, I feel the same about Penguins of Madagascar. For all its good moments, nice animation, and occasional instances of witty comedy writing, this is not a film that’s gonna stick with me for any extended time period. I know very well that Dreamworks are fully capable of creating great movies. This is just filler in the Dreamworks library.
The Madagascar films aren’t all bad, but I feel like this is shaping up to be Dreamworks’ equivalent to Disney’s Planes franchise: a series of mediocre spin-off films that don’t try as much to be good as they try to, well, simply exist for you to show your kids when you want to distract them with meaningless moving images accompanied by endless noise. To some, that is all that children’s films are good for. I proudly disagree.