First, let's state the obvious and get it out of the way. This is a crass piece of corporate product, an animation studio working more as an IP farm than as a storytelling unit, and it exists so that Dreamworks Animation can continue to wring money out of the “Madagascar” franchise. It is a perfect example of marketing driving the machine.
It's also a profoundly silly movie that really isn't even trying to play by the conventional rules of family animation. They nod to creating a sentimental arc between Private (Christopher Knights) and Skipper (Tom McGrath), but they don't dwell on it, and they handle it with a fairly deft touch. The main goal of the movie is just to be ridiculous, and it does that in spades.
The film starts with the penguins in their natural habitat, being filmed by a documentary film crew complete with the actual Werner Herzog narrating. Skipper is just a little penguin at this point, already permanently affixed to his best friends, Kowalski (Chris Miller) and Rico (Conrad Vernon), and when the three of them get separated from the rest of their kind while chasing a runaway egg, they find themselves adrift on an ice floe and in charge of a newborn penguin chick, who grows into Private by the time we catch up with the Penguins on the run.
Basically, they are adorably feathered anarchy, and the big comic set pieces are just weird. One involves breaking into Fort Knox so they can hit a vending machine that sells a kind of cheesy puff that has been discontinued. Somehow, this spirals into them being kidnapped by a bizarrely-disguised evil Octopus named Dave, voiced by John Malkovich, and if you think that sentence is enormously strange, join the club.
There is a top secret team of animals who are already working to stop Dave and his organization, and the penguins are recruited by Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch) to help them bring Dave down before he can use a top-secret serum to do something dastardly to all of the penguins in the world. It really doesn't matter, because story isn't what matters in this film. I like that they didn't go out of their way t hire celebrities for the voices of the penguins. They've got their own weird chemistry, and because they aren't recognizable voices, they exist just as these characters. That's so uncommon in Hollywood because they cling to the notion of movie stars even in animation, where it seems pointless. Malkovich is a great choice for Dave not because he's famous, but because he is from another planet, which makes him seem like an ideal choice to play a hyper-intelligent octopus with plans for world domination.
Here's where I do have trouble with the film. It's silly, it's entertaining enough, and my boys had a perfectly charming Saturday morning watching it. But how is this different from a few episodes of the “Penguins” TV show strung together? While I laughed in several places in the film and enjoyed the manic, expertly-timed energy of the chases, I also sat through the entire film marveling at the idea that the very slight “Madagascar” has generated all of this other ancillary material. There's not a thing about the Penguins that suggests that these are stories that need to be told. It's just about massaging the property along, keeping toys in stores, keeping new releases in Netflix every so often, and Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith do the absolute best job possible of whipping everything into a comic frenzy. I don't fault them. I don't fault John Aboud, Michael Colton, and Brandon Sawyer for the way they approached the script. I don't think there's a better “Penguins” movie to be made… I just question the reason for making one at all.
My frustration with Dreamworks Animation right now is probably tied in some small part to having seen “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” When the company was first founded, it was at a time when animation was booming and studios were scrambling to figure out how they could get into the business. At the time, I knew dozens of working animators, people both in Los Angeles and in some cases living and working overseas, and there was a mood at the time, a feeling that maybe things were changing and there might be a chance to make some very different kinds of animated films. From the start, it felt like DreamWorks was searching for an identity. Eric Darnell was one of the co-directors of “Antz,” and it was almost impossible not to compare what they were doing to what Pixar was doing since “A Bug's Life” came out in that same time frame, and from that moment on, I feel like the studio has always been more reactive than active. At least with “The Prince Of Egypt,” it didn't feel like everything everyone else was making. The sad part of this to me is that they could have been anything. They could have made any kind of movies. But for all the brainpower behind the studio, and for all the experience that they've had, they're still just another company that sticks rigidly to “animated movies are for family audiences,” which is only true because that's all anyone ever makes. They're a studio that makes McDonald's movies, films that all feel like they can easily appear on the side of a Happy Meal and that no one can really remember a year later, precisely because of how carefully observed the model is.
A film like “The Penguins Of Madagascar” may keep the lights on, and it may sell tons of plush toys this season, but I wish all of the talent so clearly displayed here had been put to use making something more genuine or adventurous.
“The Penguins Of Madagascar” is in theaters tomorrow.