Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Penguins of Madagascar

PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR (Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith, 2014)

Referring to an animated film rather than a cartoon doesn’t connote the reach for creative validation implicit in the usage of graphic novel versus comic book, yet in both cases reduced mentions of the more juvenile-seeming term have brought more realism often at the expense of the frivolous. Today’s computer-animated offerings certainly still employ lighthearted comedy, but now silly jokes rarely seem to be enough on their own to sustain cinematic entertainment for kids. Something of substance must be conveyed as well, as though there’s a proficiency test all children’s films must prepare small viewers for. Animated characters are guided to put down their anvils for releasing on antagonists’ heads in favor of dropping life lessons. Taking animation more seriously has resulted in quality work receiving recognition that might not have come when it was written off as merely kids’ stuff, but it shouldn’t necessitate squeezing out less nourishing fare. Thankfully, PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR, which sets a course for non-stop zaniness, is a step toward restoring balance. The side characters’ spin-off film isn’t adage-free, but its message is a pill ground up and baked into a piece of cake.

PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR fills in how the four fowls became a unit separated from their colony and then picks up their story after the events of MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE’S MOST WANTED. The appropriately named leader Skipper (Tom McGrath), brains of the group Kowalski (Chris Miller), demolitions expert Rico (Conrad Vernon), and secretary/mascot Private (Christopher Knights) plan to rob Fort Knox, although their sights are set on plundering a vending machine’s stash of discontinued Cheezy Dibbles than raiding the vault. Waiting for them is Dave (John Malkovich), an octopus known in disguise to the general public as Dr. Octavius Brine. Dave captures the penguins and takes them to his lair in Venice.

Dave too was once a featured resident of the Central Park Zoo, but he was shipped out when the penguins arrived and seized the attention of those who used to come to see him perform. Sent from park to park as other penguins continued to steal his thunder, Dave seeks revenge on their kind. He plans to use a serum on all penguins that will make the cute birds significantly less cuddly. This foursome gets rescued by The North Wind, a group of polar animals that help those who can’t help themselves. The North Wind believes the penguins will muck up their efforts to bring Dave to justice and sends them away, but the penguins have other things in mind.

PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR distinguishes itself with a combination of clever setpieces, wordplay, and some inspired celebrity voice casting. A chase through Venice and a sequence of midair plane-hopping deliver fleet and funny action that animation excels at. The penguins are humorous in their lack of self-awareness and inflated but not undeserved pride in tactical maneuvers. The dialogue stands out by verbing the names of actors and actresses into puns. Werner Herzog’s opening narration is an inspired joke, especially given his views on nature’s mercilessness. Malkovich’s delicious interpretation of an evil genius octopus serves as a terrific example of how trading on a well-known actor’s persona can be creatively wise and more than just a way of attaching familiar name to promote the film.

Like the other MADAGASCAR films, PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR isn’t something that sticks as being important or necessarily memorable in the long run, but it’s an enjoyable time that’s as worthwhile in moderation as the empty calories the penguins crave.

Grade: B

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