I wondered after seeing The Penguins of Madagascar if the people at Dreamworks knew they were releasing their action-oriented animated movie so close to the masterpiece that was Big Hero 6. If, perhaps, they thought Disney was on the verge of a misstep and they could capitalize or maybe they just greatly overestimated the quality of their movie, it can be hard when you get too close to a project. Unfortunately, it isn’t any of these things, DreamWorks Animation must know at this point that they’re putting out inferior films but that holiday weekends mean parents need things to do with their kids and that they just need to be good enough. That’s all Penguins of Madagascar is; it’s good enough.
I’m clearly not the target audience for this movie as I never much cared for the Madagascar franchise and even within those films the penguins didn’t really do it for me. They can be funny enough in small doses but there’s only one joke here, the penguins are always doing wacky things and their plans are always especially zany and frequently fall apart, and it can only be told so many times. They also never fail at anything, certainly not anything with stakes, so the most that ever happens is the penguins become embarrassed and that lack of stakes is fine as something to the side of a bigger story but it can’t carry a whole picture.
There’s a glimmer of hope in the new things Penguins of Madagascar brings to the table. There’s a faction of secret agent animals called North Wind with members voiced by a collection of name actors like Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong and Annet Mahendru and most of the things I’ll remember from this film came from these characters. There’s nothing especially fresh coming from any of these characters, in fact Cumberbatch’s wolf Classified is, by the end of the film, doing bits I remember The Fonz doing on Happy Days but at least those are jokes that work. The North Wind characters work and are used sparingly enough to not overstay their welcome and that’s enough to feel like a big success in a movie like this. I would also be remiss not to mention John Malkovich’s character, Dave the octopus, which never feels like much more than Malkovich getting an easy paycheck but the character has an utterly vexing bit where he’s always doing celebrity name puns which feels like an attempt to connect with the bored adults in the audience and while it didn’t quite work for me there’s some kind of genuine effort there and it deserves recognition.
There’s an unshakable feeling of laziness in the animation. There are sequences like the chase through Venice or the slow motion sequence in the finale that look tremendous and so lack of effort is the only explanation I can come up with for how lackluster huge chunks of the rest of the film look. The backgrounds feel flat and static, there is an incredible conservation of motion and I suppose that’s easier or cheaper but it makes for such a lifeless product. Couple this with the plot that feels like a slapdash attempt to string together set pieces that cam before any of the script came together and you’re left with a movie that feels like it exists not to say anything important or push the boundaries of a genre but to make a quick profit by keeping a family busy for an afternoon. It’s not fun to watch and Dreamworks Animation can and should be doing better.