In the spotlight, ‘Penguins of Madagascar’ take flight

  • Tue Nov 25th, 2014 4:37pm
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

The “Madagascar” series of animated films have never gotten the respect showered on Pixar movies or Disney’s top-drawer stuff. But man, they’ve been funny.

After rounding out the “Madagascar” trilogy with 2012’s gloriously silly “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” the series has found a way to continue without its top-lined stars. This time, it’s all about the penguins.

The penguins may have been supporting characters in the previous films, but they were so popular they already merited their own TV spin-off. Now we get “Penguins of Madagascar,” the full-length tale of flightless birds who learn the world isn’t all black-and-white.

After a swell prologue showing the penguins in childhood, the movie launches into a crazed plotline about the penguins battling a giant octopus named Dr. Octavius Brine (voiced by John Malkovich), although it’s possible his name is really Dave. Dave wants to wipe out the world’s penguins because their cuteness crowded him out of his regular aquarium gigs.

There’s also a secret-agent force, led by a husky called Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), who also try to stop Dave. Despite the clashing egos, neither side is prepared to deal with the brilliance or leadership qualities of the penguin in charge, Skipper.

Skipper is voiced by Tom McGrath, who along with co-directing the “Madagascar” trilogy, also grew up in Edmonds and graduated from Meadowdale High. His vocal performance as Skipper — part Charlton Heston, part Robert Stack — has been one of the pleasures of the franchise.

Here, Skipper again doles out dubious orders to Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon), and Private (Christopher Knights). The birds are frequently sidetracked by the lure of Cheezy Dibbles, or distracted by falling out of a plane at high altitude.

There has to be a big action climax, which is the only part of “Penguins” that doesn’t really click. Otherwise, the movie’s a rapid-fire collection of pratfalls and funny voices. This series has always been good at taking stray jokes and building them into running gags, and that’s still true here.

Plus, the film opens as a mock nature documentary, with the voice of Werner Herzog intoning about the beauty of Antarctica and the charm of penguins. Hard to go wrong with Herzog narrating — and this movie gets extra points just for thinking of the idea.

“Penguins of Madagascar” (3 1/2 stars)

The black-and-white scene-stealers from the “Madagascar” films get their own vehicle, as they are drawn into a crazy plot about a jealous octopus bent on capturing the world’s penguins. This rapid-fire collection of jokes rarely misses, and the penguins really are funny.

Rating: PG, for subject matter