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At The Picture Show
November 2014

Penguins of Madagascar

Flying by the seat of their pants

Globetrotting 'Madagascar' spinoff harnesses manic comedic energy from every direction

Penguins of Madagascar
20th Century Fox
Director: Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith
Screenplay: John Aboud, Michael Colton and Brandon Sawyer, based on characters created by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath
Starring: The voices of Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, Conrad Vernon, Annet Mahendru, Ken Jeong and Peter Stormare
Rated PG / 1 hour, 32 minutes
November 26, 2014
(out of four)

Don't take this the wrong way, but for this Penguins of Madagascar review, I'm going to go ahead and invoke the names of Zucker and Abrahams. I won't go so far as compare it to their vintage work of the '80s and early '90s - this movie isn't as inventive or innovative, first of all, and it's also not quite in the same realm of parody - but it does feel like it's governed by some of the same operating principles. That the faster the jokes come, the better; and that sometimes - sometimes - the dumbest jokes are the best ones.

Penguins is a relentless joke-delivery system whose sense of humor can shift from low- to highbrow, childish to elaborately absurdist, conventional to nonsensical, at a moment's notice. It is, loosely, a spy movie parody - like Pixar's The Incredibles, there's a distinct whiff of Bond, particularly in the music and the increasingly preposterous plotting - but it never hesitates to detour for any comedic non-sequitur it finds along the way. This movie tries everything, and a surprising percentage of it lands.

In fact, I bristle at the notion I've heard from some, who argue that the film panders to short attention spans (a criticism I myself have leveled against a fair number of animated movies the last few years). Because in this case, it's not speed for speed's sake or action for action's sake; there's a narrative and comedic drive behind the breakneck pacing, and it's part of what makes the film work. Gags and references fly around so fast - one responding to the last, one upending the logic of the next - that it turns what is an inherently conventional story into an utterly delirious joke canvas. (I also sense some implicit condescension in those complaints, as if a fast-paced joke-a-second animated movie is automatically designed for a lowest-common-denominator segment of the audience, as opposed to a fast-paced joke-a-second live-action movie. Not to remotely invite the comparison, but I rarely hear anyone accusing One Two Three, His Girl Friday or Marx Brothers movies of pandering to short attention spans. But I digress.)

There's a real foundation for the style of comedy being used here. Let me bring up one sequence in particular. Start with the understanding that the key to the penguin characters - a quartet of self-appointed secret agents introduced in the Madagascar series - is a combination of unshakable confidence, exceptional coordinated skill, and complete, total ignorance. So: At one point in the film, they find themselves sidetracked from their (again, self-assigned) mission, having accidentally wound up in Shanghai. Upon seeing their new surroundings, their leader, Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath), looks around and confidently declares - as if he's stating the most obvious thing in the world - that they're in Ireland. As they acclimate to their surroundings and try to determine their next step, they unleash a series of Irish cliches and absurd "observations" about Irish culture, extending the joke far beyond what is reasonable (and I mean that in a good way).

They eventually realize that their target - a purple octopus named Dave (voiced with indelible sinister cadences by John Malkovich) - is headed, ironically enough, to Shanghai, so they wrap themselves up in a box postmarked for Shanghai and ship themselves off, wind up right back where they started moments later and, after emerging from their packaging and glancing around, confidently declare that they've been shipped to "Shanghai's famous 'Little Dublin' district."

It's a glorious series of jokes build on top of one another, all happening in about two minutes of screen time, and it says all you need to know about the movie - it will go in the direction the comedic opportunities take it.

This is a movie that begins with a Werner Herzog documentary parody (with Herzog himself lending his voice), follows that up not long afterward with a visual nod to La Dolce Vita, randomly shifts aspect-ratios in certain key scenes, and features an inexplicable series of celebrity name puns simultaneously so dumb and so clever that I just wanted to applaud.

The filmmakers (directors Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith and writers John Aboud, Michael Colton and Brandon Sawyer) handle plot with the same loose etiquette. For example, one of the central character arcs involves the penguin known as Private (Christopher Knights) - "the cute one," and the youngest, who doesn't seem to have any discernible skills but is part of the team anyway. Kind of like a mascot. Early on, he makes it clear that his one wish is "to be a meaningful and valued member of this team." Skipper brushes that wish off and generally ignores Private's attempts to contribute, but in a few hilarious moments over the course of the film, he takes time out to tell each of the other penguins, "You're a meaningful and valued member of this team." The movie is not just acknowledging the obviousness of the arc - which we all know will wind up with Private proving his valor and worthiness - but openly making a farce of it.

That is emblematic of the underlying reason why Penguins of Madagascar works, which is that it demonstrates a commitment to its comedic ideals and follows through on them. A lot of comedies can't make that claim, but this one, surprisingly enough, can. It feels like the filmmakers are making this movie as much for themselves as for their audience. There are too many instances of elaborate sequences and gags that will go over young audiences' heads that it's hard to believe Darnell, Smith and Co. would go to that level of effort if they weren't also amusing themselves. Believe me, I know - everything about the concept for this movie seems like a bad idea. Gimmicky side characters should never get their own movie - it's a recipe for disaster. And in this case, those gimmicky side characters came from a movie franchise I'm not fond of to begin with. So the fact that Penguins is any good at all is pretty much the upset of the year. But with as much fun as the movie is, I'm happy to leave my skepticism behind.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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