The penguins of Madagascar—the characters, not the movie—are amusing in short bursts, the very idea of the small, flightless birds living double lives as secret agents making for an enjoyable subplot in the “Madagascar” series of films. Now, however, the birds have been given their own vehicle, their own storyline. The television series of the same name gave us a taste of how the Penguins stand up to the scrutiny of being primary characters, and now, with their film debut, one comes to realize that it might have been in the best interest of everyone involved to keep them on the small screen, or, if they ever return to the big screen, to remain in the background.
“Penguins of Madagascar” traces the characters of Skipper, Kowalski, Rico, and Private back to their beginnings—the frozen tundra. As babies, the quartet finds itself headed out to sea on an ice float, their future uncertain. We jump ahead to “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” where a certain lion, zebra, giraffe, and hippopotamus make a brief cameo, and where the penguins launch themselves out of a cannon. Their destination? Fort Knox, of course.
From here the film introduces its villain, Dr. Octavius Brine, a mad scientist bent on mutilating penguins everywhere in a mad quest for revenge. The penguins’ attempt to foil the nefarious doctor’s plan makes up the rest of the movie, and, at roughly eighty minutes runtime, the film begins to spiral. This is a movie marketed and made for children, and the pace is so zany and kinetic that we hardly have a moment to breathe, reflect. What are supposed to be contemplative character moments, scenes adding depth to previously shallow characters, come off as cheap, mere blurs on the side of the road as the film races at breakneck speed, lest it slow down and lose the attention of its audience.
Herein lies the problem the movie faces, the debilitating issue that causes the movie to fail. The director feels that, because he is making a children’s movie, he must create as many gags, jokes, and puns as possible, slap it all together in a colorful package. Moments of reflection are far and between because children do not want them, or understand them. The movie underestimates its audience. Whatever themes and morals are present here have been done previously and with greater effect in superior, better-crafted films. The animation is done well, the film boasts funny vocal performances from the likes of John Malkovich and Benedict Cumberbatch, yet whatever positives it holds fall flat in comparison to the pitfalls it cannot help but run into.
One gets the impression that perhaps, with the right team of animators and writers, a certain level of thought and care, the penguins could very well pull off their own movie. The dynamic the characters have achieved is enjoyable, as are the distinct personalities carved out of what were once B-characters relegated to thirty-second gags intercut with another movie’s main plot. “Penguins of Madagascar,” however, is not a movie. It better resembles a diversion, something quick, slight, and fleeting, something that is certainly entertaining, but pales in comparison to its competition, fails to reach the plateau of Disney or Studio Ghibli. Animation has come a long way, and has produced some of the greatest films of the past decade. When one takes into account the company “Penguins of Madagascar” belongs to, it is difficult to see it having any sort of lasting impression beyond an hour and a half of playtime, something to keep one’s child occupied rather than enthralled.
By Lucas Dispoto