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Review: Penguins of Madagascar (2014)

Penguins of Madagascar (2014)

Directed by: Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith

Premise: A spin-off of the animated feature Madagascar. Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private pair with another team of animals to stop a villainous octopus from launching a chemical attack.

What Works: A spin-off movie takes a supporting character of a popular film and moves him or her to the center of the action, usually jettisoning all or most of the original cast. Much of the time these kinds of films don’t work out as evidenced by The Scorpion King, Elektra, Cars 2, and Supergirl. Spin-off films typically go wrong because they take a character who was only tangentially interesting and whatever charm he or she may have collapses under the weight of a feature length narrative. Penguins of Madagascar is much better than the average spin off and it works in large part because its central characters are watchable but also because the filmmakers find ways to sustain interest. The movie begins with a brief origin story that parodies the 2005 documentary March of the Penguins and sets up character relationships that play out throughout the rest of the story. These penguins are social pariahs who leave Antarctica to go on their own adventures. Skipper and Private form the center of the story but each of the penguins are distinct in their behavior and character design and so the moviemakers create the impression of characterization even if that isn’t substantiated on the screen. The primary attraction of a movie like this is not so much its story but its humor and action and Penguins of Madagascar has both. None of the jokes in the movie are side-splitters but the filmmakers alternate between physical comedy, prop gags, and puns and deliver them at such a speed that the cumulative effect is really enjoyable. The variety of comedy also helps the movie’s appeal; children will respond to the physical gags but adults will be amused by the other jokes. This is also a very action-oriented animated movie; Penguins of Madagascar is really a superhero film cast with talking animals. The filmmakers capitalize on the popularity of superhero pictures by channeling some the scenarios found in movies like the X-Men and Avengers series and this allows them to create a film that is distinctly different from the other Madagascar pictures.

What Doesn’t: Like the other films in this series, Penguins of Madagascar is primarily a kid’s picture. Movies for families are distinct from movies for children; family pictures have a cross-generational appeal but movies for children are generally much more cartoonish, are soft on tension and stakes, and are perceived to be safe and tame. On the continuum between family films and kid’s pictures, Penguins of Madagascar is near the center but it is ultimately geared for children and it is very safe, even by the standards of DreamWorks Animation. Movies like this tend to underestimate the intensity and sophistication that children can take and a lot of Penguins of Madagascar is just okay. The movie is entertaining but it’s never much more than average and it often panders to the audience. One strange aspect of this picture is the way in which the penguins of the film jump the shark. This is often the case with spin-off films. In the original Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) was a supporting character but he was also a fraud; Sparrow was a lousy pirate whose luck and reputation masked his drunken incompetence. By the time that series got to its fourth installment Johnny Depp’s pirate had gone from a supporting player to a top billed star and the character was converted into a dashing superhero. The penguins of the Madagascar series have gone through a similar transformation and they aren’t really recognizable as the foolish characters seen in the original movie.

Bottom Line: Penguins of Madagascar is fun viewing although more so for children than for their parents. The movie is better than the average spin off film but like a lot of DreamWorks Animation titles it is more intended to sell merchandise and sustain a franchise than to tell a compelling story.

Episode: #521 (December 14, 2014)