[Screen It]


(2014) (voices of Tom McGrath, Chris Miller) (PG)

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Computer-Animated Action Comedy: A group of penguins who envision themselves as covert operatives must contend with an octopus who has an axe to grind with them from the past.
Ten years ago, penguins Skipper (voice of TOM McGRATH), Kowalski (voice of CHRIS MILLER) and Rico (voice of CONRAD VERNON) saved the egg holding Private (voice of CHRISTOPHER KNIGHTS) from some hungry seals and they've been a tight knit group of self-professed covert operatives ever since. Unbeknownst to them, years ago they stole the thunder of former zoo favorite Dave the Octopus (voice of (JOHN MALKOVICH) and he's never lived that down. In fact, he's developed a solution he's called the Medusa serum that he intends to use on them and all other penguins to change and thus render them unappealing to humans for the rest of time.

Luckily for the penguins, the North Wind rescue team -- headed by a wolf known only as Classified (voice of BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH) who has the assistant of his right-hand bear, Corporal (voice of PETER STORMARE), the angry seal known as Short Fuse (voice of KEN JEONG), and the comely owl Eva (voice of ANNET MAHENDRU) -- have arrived to help them from Dave and his team of henchmen octopi. With him kidnapping penguins from all around the world, it's a race against time for the uneasily combined teams under Skipper and Classified to see if they can stop him before he succeeds.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Nearly everyone loves the sidekick, whether that's a real person (think of those who play second fiddle and yes/laugh men to TV talk show hosts) or a fictitious character on a TV show or in a movie. Sometimes, though, that secondary level of fame goes to their heads -- or those of the powers that be who control the purse strings -- and they (or their handlers) think they should be stars and could carry a show or film on their own.

TV is littered with spin-off shows featuring former supporting characters turned leads ("Laverne & Shirley," "Lou Grant" "The Colbert Report," etc.), while the world of cinema has also had its share of such projects, but certainly not as many. Most have been in the action genre, including the various "Wolverine" films being derived from the "X-Men" movies, while "The Mummy Returns" spawned "The Scorpion King."

Animated films have included "Puss in Boots" (from the "Shrek" franchise), "The Tigger Movie" (from the Winnie the Pooh universe) and "Planes" (an off-shoot from "Cars"), while those adorable minions will also be getting their own spin-off from the "Despicable Me" franchise. Like those lovable scene stealers, this week's new film features similar cinematic sidekicks who've now been given their own feature film.

And that would be "Penguins of Madagascar," a title that makes this sound like it could be a documentary sequel to "March of the Penguins" (to be honest, that's what I thought it was upon first hearing of it). Instead, it's a spin-off from the computer-animated "Madagascar" films that featured Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Gloria the Hippo and Melman the giraffe and their New York zoo to island country adventures (and misadventures).

While kids and adults alike enjoyed their shenanigans, part of the fun -- much like watching Scrat the prehistoric squirrel's antics in the "Ice Age" movies -- came from four penguins who envisioned themselves as covert operatives with missions needing to be accomplished. They didn't get a tremendous amount of screen time (reportedly just around eight minutes combined in the three "Madagascar" flicks), but were funny and entertaining enough to warrant the green light of getting their own pic (and before that a TV show on Nickelodeon that I've never seen).

They're still as funny as ever, and the 90-some minute film offers plenty of laughs along with frenetic action-comedy sequences to keep most everyone entertained. Yet, as is often the case with movies like this, the individual jokes and various details (including the terrific looking animation) come off as far better than the collective whole.

Part of that stems from the plot from scribes John Aboud, Michael Colton and Brandon Sawyer. While it does serve as a decent skeleton upon which the many gags, jokes and puns are hung with care, the underlying story is no great shakes. In short, it's about a vindictive octopus (voiced by John Malkovich) who was so hurt in the past by the penguin quartet stealing his fame, thunder and public adoration in the past that he now wants revenge.

With his loyal octopi henchmen (that sort of reminded me of the Martians in Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks!"), he's set out to kidnap all of the cute zoo penguins of the world and transform them into hideous and repulsive monsters, creatures no zoo-goer could ever love. A more polished and professional team of animal operatives (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Stormare, Ken Jeong and Annet Mahendru) swings in to rescue the day, but end up clashing with the title characters (voiced by Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon, Christopher Knights and Tom McGrath -- the co-director of the three "Madagascar" films who's fabulous here, seemingly channeling what the late, great Phil Hartman might have similarly done, as the group's leader).

Considering the attention to the visual detail and the numerous jokes (including lots of puns involving famous Hollywood performers' names such as "Nicolas, cage them" and "Drew, Barry, more power"), it's too bad that the actual story itself isn't as inspired and funny. The lack of that certainly doesn't derail the project, but you can sense and then feel some of the fun evaporating from the first half to the second as the plot takes over and the cute, clever and sometimes hilarious bits get somewhat shoved into the background.

Even so, co-directors Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith keep things moving at a fast clip and it's unlikely anyone -- kid or adult -- will find themselves bored. With a more imaginative storyline, this could have been a brilliant computer-animated comedy. As it stands, it's certainly entertaining and engaging enough to earn a recommendation, although I don't believe any of the supporting characters will likely get their own spin-off. "Penguins of Madagascar" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed November 22, 2014 / Posted November 26, 2014

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