Dreamworks have p-p-p-picked up the penguins from the Madagascar movies for their own sugar-fuelled adventure, which comes with cheese puffs jokes for the kids, Cumberbatch, Malkovich and a Herzog gag for the grownups
There’s a famous story the illustrator and writer Maurice Sendak used to tell. The author of Where the Wild Things Are received a drawing from a child fan. He was taken with it and wrote a note back. The kid was so excited to hear from his hero that he took the card and ate it. Sendak called it one of the highest compliments to his work in his career.
This anarchic reflex, to devour something that elates us, is a running theme in Penguins of Madagascar – 90 minutes of computer-generated, bounce-off-the-walls exuberance. Chomping and swallowing just about anything is the superpower of one of our quartet (Rico), but there’s a great deal of stuffing, shoving and hoovering going on throughout this weird, wild movie. Penguins of Madagascar is playtime writ large, as high-energy anthropomorphised birds hurl puns like ninja stars and race from one absurd set-piece to the next. Lose pace at your own peril.
Like the Shrek-launched Puss in Boots, Penguins of Madagascar is a Dreamworks spinoff. The three (three!? were there really three?) Madagascar films had a few things going for them. They had decent New York city geography (at least as good as Birdman’s) and showed that, yes, David Schwimmer does have a purpose in entertainment, and that purpose is to play a neurotic giraffe. Over time, the producers realised that the most beloved characters were something originally conceived as a side gag – the vaguely military, somewhat dopey but incredibly adorable penguins. They weren’t even voiced by celebrities so, in a way, this new picture has its roots in believing in the little guy.
Penguins of Madagascar begins with the origin story of our quartet, and a solid Werner Herzog joke to boot (all the kids are crazy about Fitzcarraldo). After a truly madcap bit of business (our flightless birds decide to rob Fort Knox, not for the gold, but for their vending machine of cheese puffs), our heroes fall foul of an evil octopus, voiced to great effect by John Malkovich. Dave (as he is called) was once a happy aquarium-dwelling sea creature, until crowd-pleasing penguins ruined his life. He got shipped from one lousy zoo to the next, until he ended up in a tank whose water pressure was altered by flushing toilets. Ew.
So he did what any big squishy purple octopus with enormous eyes that look awesome in 3D would do – he built a secret laboratory and designed an airship, a serum and a ray that would make all of the world’s adorable penguins look hideous. He also accrued some hilarious henchmen – let’s not call them minions – with stone faces and emotive eyes that made squibbly noises when they ran around.
Our good guys clearly have to defeat the octopus menace, and they do so by teaming up with an Avengers-like team called North Wind, led by a wolf voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Somewhere in this movie is a lesson about standing up for yourself and not letting others fight your battles. But somewhere else is a perhaps not-so-great lesson that people wouldn’t love penguins if they didn’t look so cute (I kept waiting for the “we love you no matter what you look like” speech, but it didn’t happen). Maybe kids today could use a splash of reality with their family viewing product. But more important than any lesson is this: Penguins of Madagascar is an injection of sugar direct to the pineal gland and woe betide any parent who tries to get their children to take a nap after seeing it. There’s an octopus versus penguins chase scene through Venice that may be the best bit of animated alacrity since The Adventures of Tintin. And all the while we are bombarded with groaner puns. Example – during the aforementioned chase, when a pair of underpants wrap around a penguin’s head, blocking his sight, he shouts “Venetian blind!” You can either put up a fight or you can go with it. I chose to go with it.
The holidays are upon us. You can take your niece and nephew to The Hunger Games and bore them with political theory about the value of propaganda, or you can go see Penguins of Madagascar and they can laugh and run around and make octopus noises. I know which I’d prefer.
• Penguins of Madagascar opens in the US on 26 November, the UK on 5 December and Australia on 1 January
This article was written by Jordan Hoffman, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 26th November 2014 16.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010