Though "comic relief" may not be quite the words for the role of the quartet of penguins in the Madagascar franchise (comic relief from Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, and Sacha Baron Cohen?), the phrase captures the supporting nature of the characters' buffoonery. Now that they're thrust into the spotlight in Penguins of Madagascar, we find out the hard way that these waddlers are better in small doses.
Three-time Madagascar director returns for a fourth go-round, this time with co-director Simon J. Smith (Bee Movie), and certainly one cannot fault the results with a lack of energy or action. Penguins of Madagascar has these qualities in abundance and to a fault, in what feels like an almost desperate attempt to mask its thin, familiar storyline and lack of thematic or emotional depth. Compensations comes in the form of willful, merry senselessness and sometimes charming verbal and visual wit.
The plot, such as it is, concerns the penguin adventurers getting themselves into jam after jam, most of them part of a campaign to thwart evil octopus mastermind Dr. Octavius Brine, a.k.a. Dave (John Malkovich). Brash, reckless leader Skipper (Tom McGrath, working a mock-suave voice), "brains of the operation" Kowalski (Chris Miller), "demolition expert" Rico (Conrad Vernon), and "cude and cuddly" rookie Private (Christopher Knights) make a good if haphazard team, but Private longs to be viewed as "a meaningful and valued member" rather than a probie.
Dave's plot to de-cute all penguins is motivated by being jealous of penguin love, but none of this coalesces enough to make Penguins of Madagascar truly about anything, despite feints at making a statement about appearances not mattering. What the DreamWorks Animation picture is really about is attempting a stealth remake of The Incredibles with a dash of Monsters vs. Aliens: the super-spy aesthetic—including the penguins' testy competition with Benedict Cumberbatch's competing superheroic outfit the North Wind—includes a '60s pastiche score and corny lairs with ray guns, while missing Pixar's patient pursuit of heart.
Though disappointingly rote in many ways, Penguins of Madagascar will probably divert kids with ease, given its manic exertion and pace. As for their adult minders, the picture is more likely to narcotize them into naps with its exhaustingly flashy CGI detail, and perhaps this is the natural order of things for tired parents seeking a break. But as Skipper says, "You know what? I reject nature! Who's with me?"