'Penguins of Madagascar'
While it might be frustrating when Pixar releases unnecessary sequels, no animation studio dips back into the well more than DreamWorks. ‘Shrek’ established the company model: Keep making sequels until all the good will is drained from a franchise and then toss in a spin-off to really kill it. With the ‘Madagascar’ series having finally run out of steam, the time has come to give the penguin side characters a film of their own. Why, you ask? Because kids love them and buy the toys, silly. Oh, you mean why do those characters deserve a movie? You know what? I’m not sure the filmmakers ever figured out the answer to that question.
When you can’t revert to old franchise formulas, the simplest solution is to latch onto a popular genre and call it parody. When Pixar gave Larry the Cable Guy’s character an ill-conceived spin-off and called it ‘Cars 2’, that studio decided to make it a spy picture. When the folks in charge of the ‘Madagascar’ series gave their wise-cracking penguins an ill-conceived spin-off, they decided to make it a spy picture. Hmm, I wonder where they got that idea?
The plot is a bunch of gobbedlygook involving John Malkovich as an evil octopus who is so disgusted by the cuteness of penguins that he wants to turn them all into little monsters. Obviously, our four do-gooder penguin leads don’t take kindly to that idea. They team up with a collection of arctic animal super-spies (led by a wolf voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) to stop that octopus from fulfilling his evil plot. Of course, none of that matters much. It’s all just an excuse to squeeze as many expensive CGI slapstick gags and pop culture references into a tedious 95-minute sugar rush.
There’s nothing overtly wrong with a movie like ‘Penguins of Madagascar’. It’s pleasant enough and kids seem to lap it up. The trouble is just how thoroughly empty the whole enterprise is. The episodic plot feels like it was assembled on the fly by a collection of writers making it up as they went along with little sense of structure or purpose. Jokes pop up left and right with no connection to the main proceedings in a way that feels like they came from a series of writers’ room punch-up sessions rather than anything actually ironed out. Given what a long process it is to make a massive CGI animated feature like this, you’d hope the filmmakers would take their time to actually work out what they were making. The haphazardness of this spin-off suggests that no one cared that much, and instead just slammed a bunch of ideas together while chasing a release date.
The fact that the movie turned into something even this moderately watchable is a miracle. The fact that no one involved in this multi-million dollar behemoth cared enough to deliver something cohesive is a real shame. The children who will turn up to theaters in massive numbers and their parents forking over stacks of cash deserve better.
Granted, the opening of the movie will introduce a generation of kids to the soothing sounds of Werner Herzog, and the filmmakers convinced Cumberbatch to say “bro” at one point. So I suppose the film earns a couple of points for those two achievements.