Nothing Great about Penguins of Madagascar, but Nothing Awful, Either

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Release Date: November 26, 2014
Rating: PG for mild action and some rude humor
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
Run Time: 92 minutes
Directors: Eric Darnell, Simon J. Smith
Cast: Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch

There’s one in every crowd: as a seemingly endless parade of penguins marches across the snow, content to follow their leader, one cute little guy raises the question "Does anyone even know where we're marching to?" Apparently not. This flock of rule followers is happy to do what they're told. Not young Skipper (Tom McGrath). He and his buddies break ranks to save a runaway egg and as a result have to make their own way to... wherever it was they were going.

Flash forward ten years and those sweet baby penguins have become an elite undercover force. (Think The A-Team, or if you're too young for that, Ninja Turtles with feathers.) Like all other famous tuxedo-wearing spies, the penguins have an arch-enemy: Dr. Octavius Brine, also known as Dave the Octopus (John Malkovich, Warm Bodies). Dave has been carrying a grudge against the penguins for years and now he's out for revenge against all penguin-kind. Can the team stop him?

Maybe, but they're going to need the help of an even snazzier undercover operation: The North Wind, led by husky (literally, he's a dog) Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Fifth Estate). His name is "Classified" because if he told you his name, well, you know... This super-smart, super-well-funded, and super-smug force thinks they can handle Dave without any help from cute little penguins. You know what they say about pride, right?

My nine-year-old companion said her favorite part was "when they all worked together." The importance of teamwork is a big part of this movie's message but the main point is that 'cute' is just on the outside. It's what's inside that counts. There's more to penguins… and octopi… and everyone, really, than meets the eye.

Is it great cinema? Not so much. But it is a family film that really is fun for the whole family. The ages of my group ranged from two to fifty-something and a good time was had by all. Penguins of Madagascar is not just funny; it's the smart kind of funny that doesn't rely on potty humor (although there is a fair amount of vomiting). Adults will want to listen carefully; there are secret 'messages' woven into the dialogue just for us. Sci-fi fans will love the many nods to famous film moments, with Star Trek in particular getting a lot of love. Kids will enjoy the penguins and friends getting into (and out of) one predicament after another. Bless their hearts, for all their impressive secret agent skills, the penguins aren't always the brightest birds in the bush, but then that's part of their charm.

Cumberbatch, who seems to be everywhere these days, didn't have much to work with as Agent Classified, but did his best as the predictable "company man" commander. Our tuxedoed heroes are all charming. Skipper has the most to say, but Kowalski (Chris Miller) delivers his prognostications of gloom and doom with just the right note of clueless authority while Rico (Conrad Vernon) mostly swallows things. Young Private (Christopher Knights), who began life as the egg whose rescue started it all, is a heart-melter. The baby of the family, underestimated by everyone, Private's goal in life is to be recognized as a valued member of the team... and to eat Cheesy Dibbles, a crunchy snack beloved by all our feathered friends (moms will appreciate the cheesy mess that ensues).

While their globe-trotting adventure takes the team to assorted countries, the M word in Penguins of Madagascar is just to help viewers mentally place them in the universe of the three Madagascar movies that preceeded this one. The animation is decent but not over the top. I saw it in 3D, which was nice but not amazing, so if money is tight you won't miss a thing if you go for the regular 2D option. It's not the best animated movie to come out this year but it's certainly cute and cuddly enough to make it a happy family outing this holiday season.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: The birds tend to overdose on Cheesy Dibbles, but it does not impair their faculties. The North Wind crew may have had wine during a fancy meal but if so it’s  passing reference.
  • Language/Profanity: A few mild insults (sassmouth, blowhard); use of "flipping" ("they have flippers; I have flippers. It's flipping useless!"); a couple of anatomical references (reference to a "butt hand," breaking the wind); and one exclamation of "sweet chariot of the gods!"
  • Sex/Nudity: A bird falls for another bird; they eventually kiss. Penguins exchange kisses, not in a sexual way.
  • Violent/Frightening/Intense:  Early on the penguins are menaced by hungry seals. There is considerable slapstick violence. Several creatures are mutated into weird things.
  • Spiritual Themes: One character sacrifices himself to save the rest. The main lesson, which is hammered home several times, is that there's more to life than just being cute and cuddly.

Publication date: November 25, 2014

 
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