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'Penguins' Charming and Familiar

'Penguins of Madagascar'—Dir. Simon J. Smith & Eric Darnell (20th Century Fox)—3 Stars

Today’s animated films are cute. From the wholly unnecessary “Cars 2” to the “Despicable Me” franchise that spawned a thousand merchandising lines and a spin-off prequel, modern animated children’s films generally boast similar aesthetics of large eyes, disproportionately sized bodies, and anthropomorphized plush-doll animals. This is a tried-and-true formula, so it’s no surprise that DreamWorks’s new film “Penguins of Madagascar” follows it to the letter. The end result is a movie that is energetic and fun but ultimately indistinguishable from most entries in the genre.

Initially a direct-to-video film, “Penguins” features the familiar Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon), and Private (Christopher Knights), characters from the “Madagascar” film trilogy and the stars of the Nickelodeon television show “The Penguins of Madagascar.” Although “Penguins” has the same name as the television show, it actually takes place after “Madagascar 3” and in a different timeline than the show.

“Penguins” adopts a fast pace from its opening scene—an action-filled flashback that introduces the childhood friendship between Skipper, Kowalski, and Rico (and eventually Private)—and manages to maintain this level of frenetic energy throughout. Much of the film’s lively 3D action sequences are bolstered by Tom McGrath’s excellent voice performance, and McGrath’s delivery meshes well with that of Benedict Cumberbatch, who voices the character Classified. He serves as the leader of a high-tech military squad of animals named the North Wind, composed of Short Fuse (Ken Jeong), Eva (Annet Mahendru), and Corporal (Peter Stormare). Whereas the penguins are a bumbling group of lovable idiots, the North Wind is a tightly run organization complete with a secret base, a hovercraft, jet packs, and rocket launchers. Needless to say, the two teams don’t initially get along.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the penguins have been accidentally embroiled in a conflict with Dave (John Malkovich), an octopus driven mad with jealousy at being overshadowed by penguins in every zoo he’s resided in. Much like in “Despicable Me 2,” Dave concocts a serum that will mutate penguins across the world, but instead of pursuing world domination, Dave simply wants to make them repulsive to humans. In a light-hearted animated film where the stakes aren’t very high, much of the dramatic tension comes from the audience’s implicit desire to preserve the cuteness of the penguins. Nonetheless, the film derives much heart from the relationship between Private and Skipper. Found by the other three penguins as an egg at the film’s beginning, the younger Private has always felt underappreciated as a member of their team—a problem that compounds the ongoing conflicts with Dave and the North Wind.

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Penguins
Kowalski (Chris Miller), Skipper (Tom McGrath), Rico (Conrad Vernon), and Private (Christopher Knights) return to the big screen in "Penguins of Madagascar."

“Penguins” does manage to pack in some impressive visuals—directors Simon J. Smith and Eric Darnell fit in numerous flashy action sequences that flout the laws of physics and demonstrate the film’s superior visual effects compared to the show. Frenzied chase sequences have the surreal quality of “Tom and Jerry” cartoons, interspersed with witty dialogue between the penguins. The script, partly co-written by McGrath and Darnell, packs in clever one-liners aimed at astute children as well as their parents. Of particular note are the non-stop celebrity puns spouted by Malkovich’s character, as every line he utters seems to contain some deliberately roundabout turn of phrase that is homophonous with some celebrity’s name—for instance, “Drew, Barry—more power!”

While “Penguins” ultimately proves to be inoffensively charming family fare, it fails to achieve the depth of most Pixar films or previous DreamWorks hits like “How to Train Your Dragon.” However, the film comes from a franchise built on megalomaniacal anthropomorphized animals and is aware of its shortcomings. Watching the film is like a high-budget throwback to Saturday morning cartoons of years past, the kind that were packed with nonsensical plotlines that nonetheless remained engaging throughout. “Penguins” doesn’t seek to be praised; it simply exists to entertain.

—Crimson staff writer Alan R. Xie can be reached at alan.xie@thecrimson.com.

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