In preparation to watch Penguins of Madagascar, I attempted to brave Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted. I couldn't because I fell asleep. Not that the movie didn't try to hold my attention with non-stop antics, shouting, and mayhem. It's just that none of it was presented with any conviction or wit. The Madagascar series has always been like that guy you know who thinks he's funny simply by being the loudest person in the room, even while everyone holds their ears against the screeching.
But hidden underneath Ben Stiller's bland vocal performance, the forgettable plots about believing in yourself, and the infernal ubiquity of Reel 2 Real's "I Like to Move It," there were those clever penguins, always zipping in and out of the movie and stealing every scene they were in. It was only a matter of time (read: nine years) before they got their own film, and here it is. Sure, there's the requisite conflict between characters about self-esteem and getting to achieve one's own potential, but that's all been sidelined to allow for maximum penguin spy antics, exhilarating and hilarious chase scenes, and plenty of self-aware jokes. You'd be justified in believing that Chris Miller and Phil Lord—masters of meta-comedy with 22 Jump Street and The Lego Movie—had cranked out a third movie this year. That's high praise for a Madagascar spin-off.
The plot: the four penguins—blowhard leader Skipper, brainy Kowalski, mongoloid Rico, and cutesy Private—have blasted themselves away from the original Madagascar clan in favor of more adventures. They run afoul of Dave (voiced by John Malkovich), a mad scientist who is actually an octopus (just go with it) who is out for revenge against the penguins for upstaging him at the zoo and stealing his spotlight. His plan is to use a giant laser that will turn all penguins into ugly, dangerous monsters, thereby taking away people's adoration for them. Grinding up against the penguins are a slick group of spy animals, comprised of wolf Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), polar bear Corporal (Peter Stormare), snow owl Eva (Annet Mahendru), and seal Short Fuse (Ken Jeong). They are North Wind, whose ultra high tech approach to bringing Dave down conflicts with the penguins' impromptu, bull-in-a-china-shop method.
These other animals could have dragged the movie down because they inherently take away screen time from the penguins, which is the last thing we'd want. But directors Simon J. Smith and Eric Darnell wisely keep the penguins in the spotlight, utilizing the other animals as devices to move the plot forward. That is not to say that North Wind's presence is not entertaining; they are the excellent straight men to the penguins' unpredictable mania. They are also there to provide the hardware for the terrific action scenes, all of which are choreographed down to the bone, and on a massive scale. All through which the penguins provide wisecracking commentary that almost never flags (a running gag in which characters say stuff like, "Halle, bury them!" or "William, hurt them!" is funny at first but gets a little tired after a while). The voice acting by the cast is uniformly dedicated and hilarious, especially by Tom McGrath as Skipper, whose dry, smirking delivery provides a huge chunk of the comedy.
What holds this movie back from greatness is that it attempts to go for an emotional ending that succeeds on a functional level, but lacks the sort of impact that Toy Story 3, The Iron Giant, or Up have. However, the film far surpasses any of the admittedly low water marks established by the previous Madagascar movies, which wear their hearts on their sleeves, and then try to shove the sleeve down your throat. When the movie's final conclusion is that "jetpacks are awesome," you get the idea that the filmmakers have finally figured out what works and what doesn't with this series.