From the first glorious moments of The Penguins of Madagascar, where we hear Werner Herzog, famed quirky German documentary maker effectively satirising himself as he narrates a documentary about the “chubby little bum-bums” penguins parading before him, it becomes patently and hilariously obvious that this movie will be a thing of inspired, frenetic lunacy writ large.
Straining against the unthinking, unimaginative glib conformity that defines penguin life in Antarctica, everyone’s favourite Madagascar sidekicks – Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon); Private is yet to join them – decide it is high time they struck out on their own to see what the big, wide world has to offer.
It isn’t an immediate plan as such but quickly becomes one when a lone penguin egg goes rolling by, ignored by everyone waddling to who knows where exactly, leaving it to the adventurous three to set off in hot pursuit, fending off their fourth member to be, Private (Christopher Knights), from hungry leopard seals intent on grabbing a tasty snack on the rotting metal hulk of a ship they call home.
Penguins of Madagascar thus functions as an origin story of sorts while also giving Skipper and his team, an earnest if inept group whose success comes down to sheer luck and pluck rather than any particular skill set, a much wider palette on which to paint their particular brand of spoof-laden espionage which recalls a heady, endlessly amusing mix of Peter Sellers, Keystone Cops, Looney Tunes and Austin Powers.
With jokes and puns and sight gags flying almost as thick and fast as the changes in location – in short order the team find themselves in Venice, where they meet their nemesis revenge-riddled octopus Octavius Brine aka Dave – a running gag has Skipper forever unable to remember his opponent’s name, referring to him at one point as Ramirez – the Sahara, Shanghai, (they are convinced it’s Dublin, river dancing their way down the Bund) and finally New York City where the big cute vs. not cute showdown takes place.
The narrative, such as it is, is fairly basic – evil octopus is bitterly resentful that the much cuter penguins grab all the limelight and attention and sets out to change things with a secret Medusa Serum so they will be cute no more – but then it doesn’t really need to be War and Peace to give the penguins their chance to make merry.
Aided by the North Wind, an animal spy agency so super duper secret that its leader Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch who manages to put another snobby plum or two in his mouth to great effect) won’t reveal his name leading Skipper to call him “Classified” over and over, the penguins set out to thwart Dave’s nefarious plans which involves stealing all the captive penguins from all over the world and committing unspeakably un-cute acts against them.
While the result is fairly much a foregone conclusion – a bitter twisted European indie polemic on the gross injustices of life this is not – everyone on the team who produced The Penguins of Madagascar, including screenwriters Michael Colton, John Aboud and Brandon Sawyer who must have had a ball cramming in as many jokes per nanosecond as the animation would allow, seem to have had a blast getting them to the big, action-packed witty finale.
There is everything from gleefully-inserted actor names used in the most creative of ways – “Halle! Berry them!”, “Drew! Barry! More power!” – to a ballet of plane hopping high above the Sahara which leads naturally enough to a bouncy castle workout on the ground to a dizzyingly silly exchange between the penguins and North Wind on one hand, and Dave on the other, the latter of whom is manifestly and hilariously unable to operate his video conferencing software.
Skipper and his team, of whom Private feels a less than valued member until, naturally enough, he gets his moment to shine, are oblivious to the sheer just-by-the seat-of-their-pants nature of their “success” until Classified makes it patently obvious that the North Wind team are the superior operatives and that the penguins should simply fall in line behind them.
But they aren’t sidelined for long – how could a group so devoted to Cheesy Dibbles, a snack food with more yellow food colouring and preservatives than there are fast moving witty lines in the film ever be out of action for too long? – and The Penguins of Madagascar makes it clear in one of its many life lessons, none of which are mercifully delivered in too heavy handed a fashion, that commitment and camaraderies can count for just as much as logical planning and skill.
The sheer joy of this giddy, bouncy romp of a spy genre spoof is that it manages to be all things to all demographics – over the top madly verbally-slapstick crazy for all the kids watching, and intelligently goofy and satirical for all the parents who inevitably must accompany their progeny to the cinema.
Directors Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith keep the movie moving furiously along without making it feel like they are rushing things, the jokes, though coming through thick and fast, always get their moment to shine, and the penguins, freed from Antarctica and their roles as purely comic relief in the Madagascar franchise, get their chance to take on the big world outside and make their big splashy, unmissable Cheesy Dibble-splattered mark in joyously madcap fashion.