Movie News & Reviews

‘Penguins’ origin story packed with groan-worthy wordplay

Penguin power!

Submit to it. Resistance is futile.

Smart-mouth flightless waterfowl bring the funny in all sorts of clever ways in “The Penguins of Madagascar.” The inevitable feature featuring Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon) and Private (Christopher Knights) breaks free from the main characters of DreamWorks’ “Madagascar” movie series and dispatches the birds from their Antarctic land of origin to Shanghai, New York and Fort Knox.

In the course of their travels, an origin story morphs into a James Bond-style adventure tale, complete with a secret agent wolf suavely voiced by the lately ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch.

The pace is brisk, and the script is clever. In jokes abound and the laughs come in bunches. In the opening sequence that introduces the feathered four as chicks, a serious-sounding offscreen narrator incongruously rhapsodizes about the “cute and cuddly” qualities of these “frisky little snow clowns.” Fans of indie cinema will recognize the narrator as Werner Herzog, who knows a thing or two about real penguins, having made a documentary about the Antarctic, “Encounters at the End of the World.” Eventually, he shows up onscreen as an animated documentary maker whose film-making technique entails shoving Skipper & Co. off a high cliff to inject some high drama into his movie-within-the-movie.

The most famous penguin documentary of all, “March of the Penguins,” also is sent up in a scene in which lined-up and lock-stepping marchers topple like dominos to the far horizon once the first one falls backward.

The movie’s debt to the three “Madagascar” movies is simultaneously acknowledged and dismissed when the catchy “I Like To Move It” tune from those earlier ‘toons is briefly heard, causing Kowalski to snark, “I’m getting really tired of this song.”

They’re on their own in this one, and they own their star turn with wild and often groan-worthy pun-addicted word play: A blinding encounter with octopus ink during a chase through the canals of Venice elicits a “Venetian blind” joke. It is to groan.

The “cute and cuddly” aspect is central to the plot as that quality of penguinkind is what drives the bad guy bonkers. He’s an octopus who once was a big-deal zoo star until the penguins came along and overshadowed him with their irresistible cuteness. Now he thirsts for revenge.

The octovillain is voiced by John Malkovich, who sounds like he’s having the time of his life getting giddy with villainy. The animation of his character is delightful, full of twirling tentacles and fiendishly rubbed-together suckers.

Defeating this gleeful demon takes the combined efforts of the penguin foursome and a band of high-tech-equipped secret agent critters led by Cumberbatch’s character.

Deploying snappy patter and slapstick antics straight out of the Marx Brothers playbook (Skipper is a wisecracking Groucho for the new century), the penguins make the super spies look foolish. And themselves as well: A priceless scene of penguins in lederhosen going polka crazy before an audience of disbelieving octopi is one of the many high points in this very funny picture.

  Comments