The Penguins are on the loose again – after their adventures together with the animals of New York's Central Park Zoo, now proprietors of a circus, the monochromatic quartett of Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private are getting bored and break into Fort Knox to make the youngest member of their gang a special birthday present. But then they are completely unexpectedly abducted themselves – by the octopus Dave, an arch-nemesis they never knew they had...
Originally, they were just meant as a running gag ten years ago when Dreamworks Animation came up with one of their biggest hits, but in the last decade they got heavily upgraded from minor secondary characters to leading heroes themselves. They're the Penguins of Madagascar - they made their debut 2005 in the movie that gave them their name and soon they became the stars of several short films, had more extensive appearances in the second and third movies of the franchise and even got their own television series. So what was left? The studio had plans to make the Penguins the stars of their own movie from the beginning, although the idea had always been deferred in favour of other projects. But with the Madagascar franchise ending with the third instalment, the decision was finally made to bring the monochromatic band of penguins to the cinema in their own full-length adventure.
Rumours about a possible cinematic Penguins adventure had been around almost as long as the first Madagascar movie, but an official announcement came only in 2011 when the television series was in full swing and the work on the third film had been completed. At first, no director was attached, but Alan Schoolcraft and Brent Simons, the writers of Dreamworks Animation's Megamind were reported to have started development on the script. Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, the original writers and directors of the Madagascar Franchise, do not seem to have been involved at this point, but since McGrath had directed Megamind, he had probably helped his writers pitch the Penguins script to the studio. In 2012, Simon J. Smith, a long-time Dreamworks veteran, was announced as the director, who was later joined by Madagascar co-originator Eric Darnell, who himself had joined Pacific Data Images long before they had become a part of Dreamworks.
There were altogether five screenwriters credited for The Penguins of Madagascar, but in the case of Dreamworks more writer often mean better scripts. Alan Schoolcraft and Brent Simons seem to have been developing the initial idea for a while and were then joined by the writing duo Michael Colton and John Aboud, who are more known for their journalism and satire than for Hollywood scripts. This seemingly odd choice is nothing unusual for a Dreamworks Animation movie, since the studio often favours relatively unknown writers. They were also joined by television writer Brandon Sawyer in his capacity as one of the writers of the Penguins television series, probably to advise his colleagues on the intricacies and peculiarities of the franchise.
At first glance, the script seems like one of the throw-everything-in-and-see-what-works efforts, because the story appears to be heavily overcrowded with tons of ideas, jokes and other miscellaneous shenanigans. On closer inspection there seems to be a method in the madness: the jokes come thick and fast, the pacing has a break-neck speed and the plot is as ridiculous as can be, but this is exactly what The Penguins of Madagascar wants to be. It's not just a jumble of set pieces, but a cartoonish adventure for the favourite characters of the franchise perfectly mirroring their previous appearances - with the difference that this one lasts a lot longer. The script is so finely tuned that it only appears messy at first and there are only few moments in the movie that actually fall flat.
Like almost every Dreamworks Animation movie, The Penguins of Madagascar works hard on being accessible for both children and adults. While the television series it definitively geared more to younger viewers, since it is broadcast on Nickelodeon, the movie also has a whole seperate level for the older audience. The large amount of fast-paced dialogue is one of the aspects which might go right over the heads of the kids, because the screenwriters pumped a lot of satiric and even sarcastic humour into it which only adults can really appreciate. Of course, it also helps to have seen the previous three Madagascar movies, because there are plenty of references to them all over the place. Yet, The Penguins of Madagascar proves to be its very own movie and not just a collection of sketches derived from its predecessors.
For the older viewers, the movie basically plays like a wacky parody on the spy adventure genre with all the usual suspects as ingredients: the crack team of rogue heroes in the shape of the penguins, a world-dominating villain exacting his revenge on them and a secret spy organization on the sidelines - plus lots of locations all over the world. While the story is, of course, meant just as a fantasy, the script is quite serious when it comes to the execution of the plot and does not leave things half-baked. This is not something quickly thrown together, but created by writers who seem to have had a lot of fun developing their script into something enormously entertaining.
Like Aardman had done with their Shaun the Sheep franchise, the band of penguins was not completely overhauled and improved for the movie, but instead only slightly enhanced. The characters are still fundamentally the same, but this time we get to know a little bit more about them. Skipper is still the gung-ho and slightly dumb leader, Kowalski is the brains of the outfit, Rico the muscle-and-explosions man and Private... the secretary-slash-mascot, something which has actually been made part of the story. The little guy, the underdog of the team, finally gets his big chance and even the somewhat megalomaniac Skipper gets his huge ego reeled in... a little bit.
They are unmistakably the heroes of the movie and while they are the subject of copious amounts of slapstick and action, the movie actually manages not to overdo their antics too much and turns them into real characters instead of just running jokes. Luckily, the filmmakers were so clever not to recast the voices to give them more star appeal, so they are still voiced by Dreamworks directors, writers and animators - Tom McGrath as Skipper, Chris Miller as Kowalski, Christopher Knights as Private and Conrad Vernon as Rico. They all recreate their roles absolutely brilliantly and even manage to give them some additional depth, now that they have the chance to do it.
Even with four very active leading roles, the story has ample room for another whole set of secondary characters to counterbalance the antics of the penguin troupe. It's North Wind, the animal equivalent of a gigantic secret spy organization protecting their fellow folks in a super-competent and hi-tech way. We get an elegant and debonair grey fox named Classified as their leader, a huge, but cuddly polar bear only known as the Corporal, an owl named Eva and a small seal called Short Fuse as his team. Their characters are not really well developed, but they still provide a much-needed antipode to their monochromatic counterparts and are a lot of fun themselves especially when they get riled up by the Penguins, which happens a lot in some parts of the movie. Part of what makes them so amusing is the excellent voice casting - especially Benedict Cumberbatch, recruited long before he even became the star that he is today, is an excellent choice for the rather uppity British General 'Classified'. Peter Stormare, Annet Mahendru and Ken Jeong as his team are no less entertaining, but get not much of a chance to shine as the script does not give them too much opportunities because of timing reasons.
Stealing the show is, however, the antagonist of the story - an octopus called Dave, who harbours a little bit of a grudge against the penguins. He is a pure delight of a supervillain, simply because he is not some terribly tormented soul, but actually has some honest fun doing what he does. Dave is like Dr. Evil in the shape of an octopus - partly competent, partly silly and partly stark raving bonkers - therefore he is tons of fun and good for a surprise in almost every scene. Together with his giant octopus army, he could very well deserve his own movie or television show, but in this movie he has almost as much screen time as all the other secondary characters together. In a stroke of luck, the filmmakers were able to cast the great John Malkovich in his one and only appearance in an animated movie so far, making Dave the most charismatic and at the same time funny antagonists to ever come out of Dreamworks Animation.
The animation and design of The Penguins of Madagascar as as dazzling and breathtaking as always, but the globetrotting aspect of the story made this movie a special challenge to which the animation department certainly has risen. The amazing background scenery in this movie appears almost in a casual, nonchalant way, as if there was nothing to it. Nevertheless, the level of detail is, like in many other Dreamworks Animation productions, astonishing even in the scenes just shown for a second or two. The major locations Venice, Rio de Janerio, Shanghai and New York are a feast for the eyes and the villain's headquarters even seem to have been distinctly influenced by Ken Adams' Bond sets.
The animation itself is showing off a lot of today's amazing CGI capabilities, although it does tend to go a little overboard in some of the action scenes with more than a few camera moves which would be utterly impossible in the real world. Overall, the virtual camera work is wonderfully fluid and realistic and even though the movie was rendered with 3D in mind, the filmmakers have taken care not to make the cinematography too confusing for the flat 2D version. Especially noticeable is the very dynamic environment which makes it look like a real, breathing world and not just a painted, static background. This is real-world cinematography elegantly employed in the digital realm.
The character design retains the cartoon-like angular shapes from the Madagascar movies in favour of a more realistic approach. Ten years ago, it was sometimes called lazy because of the polygonal shapes, but it was actually a clever design choice to give the characters an unique look that Dreamworks has employed in no other movies except this spinoff. The four main characters retain almost the same design they have had since their first appearance a decade ago, but there are subtle improvements like a glossier fur and much more versatile facial expression - all necessary because the Penguins have to hold their own more than just a few minutes at a time. Their design remains simple, but it is especially this basic look that makes them so enormously entertaining in the same way as the uncomplicated approach of Aardman's plasticine figures. The simple shapes of eyes, eyebrows and a beak are enough to give each of the Penguins their individual characteristic looks that make them instantly recognizable even in a crowd of more generic specimens of their fellow species.
While the Penguins are certainly the star of the show, they almost get upstaged by a new creation introduced especially for this movie. Taking their place as the funny, yet at the same time slightly frightening diversions are the henchmen of their nemesis Dave, who are, like himself, are all octopuses. The eight-armed minions are as amazing to watch as the Penguins because their animation is wonderfully weird and totally unpredictable. Although they appear at first as run-of-the-mill villains, later in the plot they morph into the best visual slapstick diversions of the whole movie. Their look is again deliberately cartoonish and they bear a distinct resemblance to a certain Doctor Zoidberg, which is perhaps unavoidable given their joint cephalopodic origins – and that makes them almost more fun than the main characters of the movie themselves.
Compared to the eight-armed army, the designs of the North Wind members are surprisingly tame and unoriginal. Although the characters themselves are plenty of fun, they look quite ordinary, almost as if the production designers had run out of ideas. There is actually not much here we haven't seen before – the grey wolf and the polar bear seem straight out of a standard Dreamworks sketchbook and the little white owl and harp seal are not much better either and actually so generic that it is hard to distinguish them by species. In a movie where creative visuals abound, this is especially noticeable and slightly disappointing, although hardly a reason to dislike the otherwise excellent production.
The musical part of The Penguins of Madagascar was created by Lorne Balfe in his Dreamworks solo debut – he had his first break into big-screen film composing as the co-writer of Megamind together with Hans Zimmer and since then was incredibly busy, often working on four or even more movies each year. His return to Dreamworks Animation is better than most of what is coming from the patented Hans Zimmer music construction kit and certainly represents an above average effort, but overall the score for the Penguins lacks somewhat in originality. The basic idea to use a jazzy approach very much in the vein of Lalo Schifrin's Mission Impossible theme and John Barry's James Bond scores has worked quite well, but Lorne Balfe only succeeds only on a rhythmic level. His melodies are not really exciting and especially the main theme is extremely repetitive to the point of getting boring quickly, but the old-fashioned, brass-heavy arrangements almost make up for the slightly weak composing. Overall the score does its job to keep the movie on its toes and the sound itself creates a unique and individual atmosphere.
Surprisingly, there is not much other music in the movie, since the filmmakers seem to have deliberately steered away from the Dreamworks-typical overuse of pop songs. The only noticeable entry is a smattering of Earl Scrugg's Foggy Mountain Breakdown in the Fort Knox scene and even earlier a bit of the Madagascar signature tune I Like To Move It, which by now even gets on the nerves of the characters themselves. Unfortunately, this now over twenty-year-old tune was now replaced by an even worse effort called Celebrate by rapper Pitbull, which is fortunately heard only in the first half of the credit sequence, before making way for a reprise of the film music.
The Penguins of Madagascar has all the right ingredients for a classic Dreamworks Animation movie and this time they were well mixed and the result was one of the most fun and exciting movies of the studio – actually of the original Pacific Data Images, because this was their last production. PDI had been acquired by Dreamworks Animation in 2000 after their first joint movies, but due to cost-cutting measures, the original PDI campus in Redwood City, in existence long before the second studio in Glendale was opened, was shut down at the beginning of 2015, making The Penguins of Madagascar their swansong. This is actually quite noticeable in the movie, whose overabundant quirkiness feels like a goodbye gift from the whole studio, marking the end of an era. Dreamworks Animation will still continue with their computer animated endeavours, but there was always a subtle difference between the Redwood and Glendale productions – while their technical quality was evenly matched, PDI's efforts often had a more satiric and parodistic edge.
Unfortunately, both of PDI's last movies, Mr. Peabody & Sherman and The Penguins of Madagascar were financial disappointments, which may have contributed to the decision to shut down this branch of Dreamworks Animation. But although The Penguins of Madagascar had only taken $82 Million at the US boxoffice against a $132 Million budget, most reviews were actually positive. A worldwide gross of $373 million altogether showed that the movie only seemed to do badly in the US, indicating that it may have been too brainy or satiric for American audiences.
Despite the boxoffice failure of The Penguins of Madagascar, it still remains one of Dreamworks Animations' most entertaining movies and a great continuation of the Madagascar franchise. While the Penguins will probably not get another solo cinema outing, they will continue their separate adventures in their TV show – and there have been rumours of a fourth Madagascar movie, in which they surely will appear again, giving the open ending of this story.
The Penguins of Madagascar was relatively quickly released on home video in March 2015 hardly five months after the late fall cinema premiere like most of the studio's movies. The DVDs and Blu-Rays held no big surprises since after the distribution of Dreamworks movies had switched from Paramount to 20th Century Fox, since the bonus materials had been reduced to an absolute minimum - but the technical quality remains absolutely stellar and even the DVDs look as good as possible.
The DVD reviewed in this article is the British release, which also seems to be a partly pan-european edition because it also has German and Italian soundtracks. While video and audio are impeccable, the extras are, of course, disappointing and do not even contain all material from the Blu-Ray with, among some other featurettes, one deleted scene missing even though there would have been plenty of space on the disc. It's still recommended just for the movie itself, but it is no surprise that many consumers are driven to streaming video when the physical media does not really have much else to offer.