‘Penguins of Madagascar’
Directors: Eric Darnell, Simon J. Smith
Voices of: Tom McGrath, Chris Miller
3 (out of 5) Globes
Don’t lump the “Madagascar” series — or at least the seriously silly spin-off, “Penguins of Madagascar” — in with the other non-Pixar animation behemoths. Despite coming from the dodgy Dreamworks Animation unit, they’re not blandly saccharine, like the “Ice Age” saga, or tonally schizo, like the “Rio”s. They’re loopy and weird, all about jokes; the third one even boasts a writing credit from Noah Baumbach. In fact, “Penguins of Madgascar” — and stop for a moment to recognize the title’s absurdity —has the bare minimum of heart and homilies you can work while still qualifying as acceptable family fare. Hell, it starts with a Werner Herzog joke. You know, for the kids.
Things get weirder from there. The four dopey/unduly confident penguins take a break from the rest of the zoo gang, evidently to rob Fort Knox of its cheesy doodle supply. Instead they’re captured by an octopus living inside a vending machine and whisked off to Venice — don’t worry, it won’t make much sense when you’re watching it either. There they discover that an enormous octopus wants to destroy all penguins — or at least ruin their perhaps faddish reputation as the adorbs stars of movies like this and the “Happy Feet”s. (He’s voiced by John Malkovich, having a ball slumming, as he once did in “Johnny English.”)
It’s de rigueur for kids’ toons to sneak in stealth adult humor. The ones in “Penguins” are for deeply strange parents, ones who love random insanity and dumb wordplay. It’s top-down weird, from the harebrained plot hatched by Malkovich’s vengeful mollusk to the revelation that octopi have a profound love for Bavarian accordion music. We won’t just rattle off the better yuks, but props to a running gag involving turning actors’ names into verbs. (E.g., “Nicolas, cage them up!”) This isn’t top shelf animated comedy; it’s more like the try-anything approach of old comic icons, who cranked out jokes and rough-edged movies without worrying about polish — just a need to make ’em laugh. “Penguins” is less like “Rio 2” and more like “Dumb and Dumber To,” and that’s a glowing endorsement.
Of course, the funniest joke is that this is a modern mainstream toon that breaks the cardinal rule: there must be major, pretty stars you can’t see (and who tend to just sound like themselves). The series’ matinee idols (Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, et al.) are nowhere to be seen (or heard). Our four leads are all unknowns, each of them animation filmmakers. (Between them they’ve directed “Megamind,” “Shrek 2” and “Puss in Boots”). Malkovich, hilariously, is probably the biggest celeb name in the vocal cast — him or Benedict Cumberbatch, voicing a preening, irritated wolf who leads an elite squadron of tricked-out Arctic animal soldiers. (This is probably the sanest part of the film.) “Penguins” was made by pure corporate greed — the need to suck out more money from a reliable franchise. But often times it seems like the madmen are running the asylum, for better and better.