Sunday, 7 December 2014

Movie Review: Penguins Of Madagascar (2014)


When it comes to animated movies, there are a lot of companies jockeying for top position nowadays: Disney (and by extension Pixar), Dreamworks Animation, Blue Sky, Aardman and most recently Laika has become a major contender. However, for the longest time, the closest competition has always been between Disney and Dreamworks. In the three years I have been constructing the lists, I’ve seen these two titans butt heads numerous times and the outcome has been surprisingly even: While Disney has produced quite a few gems like Frankenweenie, Wreck-It Ralph and the still-popular Frozen, the cinematic open wound that is the Cars franchise drastically weakens their track record. On the other hand, Dreamworks has mostly stuck to just merely good movies like Rise Of The Guardians and this year’s Mr. Peabody & Sherman; however, they have proven that they are capable of proper great films if the How To Train Your Dragon series is anything to go by. How does today’s film add to the equation? About time to find out: This is Penguins Of Madagascar.

The plot: Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private, a team of penguins who specialize in espionage, discover an evil revenge plan against penguin-kind by Dave (voiced by John Malkovich). Together with the ‘help’ of the North Wind, lead by ‘Classified’ (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), they must thwart his scheme and save their kind.

Right off the bat, I have to say that this is the most aggressively punny film I have seen all year, and that’s considering the over-abundance found in Mr. Peabody & Sherman. Just a sample of how much they hammer these jokes in, there’s a running gag with Dave where he orders his octopus henchmen around and it sounds like the names of famous actors: “Drew, Barry: More power” “Kevin: Bake on; I still want to taste that victory cake” “William: Hurt them”; that kind of thing. I so badly want to blast this movie for how painful this can get at times, especially near the end when we get several of these jokes in a row with no respite, but I can’t help but admire the effort put into them; as someone whom makes more than a few painful puns day-by-day, and sometimes in these very reviews, I honestly wish I had this kind of skill at capital pun-ishment. However, aside from the occasionally horrifying puns and that amazingly bad joke from the trailer (“So it’s flipping useless!”), the comedy here is actually really good for the most part. It’s fast-paced and very focused on the action with occasional fourth wall nudging, meaning that puns will usually whiz straight by and allow you to either get a quick laugh or just discard them and move on without losing any ground. The schtick between the four main penguins, an understandable fan favourite from the main film series this spun off from, is alive and well here so fans of the series should be right at home here. A lot of the bigger laughs come from Rico, the team’s resident Bag Of Holding, who is the perpetrator/victim of the majority of the team’s slapstick.

The voice cast here is very good at working with their material, for good and for bad. Malkovich as the main villain discards his usual acting mode of mild annoyance and has a lot of fun with his role; I highly doubt that the character’s puns would have worked half as well if Malkovich didn’t deliver them as well as he does here. Cumberbatch, playing the overconfident Classified, delivers his character’s frequent bumbling and more embarrassing moments with the kind of finesse you’d expect from any of his other roles, making an otherwise stock character in a spy thriller enjoyable to watch. Three of the four main voices for the penguins (Tom McGrath as Skipper, Chris Miller as Kowalski and Christopher Knights as Private) return for this movie while John DiMaggio hands over the reins for Rico to Conrad Vernon. While the three returnees have had a lot of experience with their roles, and show it off plentifully here, Conrad Vernon also does well with his role. Now, admittedly, saying that a voice actor does well in a role that requires little-to-no dialogue may seem pointless, but if Groot has taught the world anything it’s that you can say everything with the right actor while the script says nothing. Not saying that Rico is anywhere near as deep as Groot; just that his voice actor portrays Rico’s Taz-like inflections as well as he needs to.

In terms of story… well, here’s where things start to go downhill. This is a very cookie-cutter spy thriller story; the kind of thing that would crop up whenever someone on YouTube would film a James Bond parody. Except with talking animals. Don’t get me wrong: The film’s writing has quite a few clever moments. Starting right off the bat, we get a nice March Of The Penguins spoof with Werner freaking Herzog voicing the filmmaker/narrator that pokes fun at how passive penguins are in nature as well as nature documentaries. However, the majority of the plot centers around Private and his want to be more accepted as part of Skipper’s team, leading to very played-out plot progression that feels like it’s just ticking boxes for the most part. Dave’s plan is, admittedly, a tad more nuanced than other animated films I’ve seen in recent years, and it follows the Dreamworks formula of doing a decent job of getting inside the villains’ heads (for a family film, at least), but the basic framework is still the same: Underappreciated operative gets put down the majority of the film, but ends up saving the day in the end. The resolution of said plan is extremely kiddified, not to mention silly even for this kind of movie, although I will give credit for the rather bizarre yet refreshing method to foiling Dave’s plan. Of course, this all feels rather insignificant when all is said and done, given how this has more of a feel of a setpiece-driven comedy rather than one that is overly dependent on its own narrative.

All in all, this is a fun family flick. Penguins is a well-animated manic spy caper that may have some glaring plot issues, but its overall sense of humour and fun wins out to make for a decent enough watch for both kids and adults. I can recommend this for some adults but only those who have a reasonably high tolerance for puns; if not, this film will grate on you very quickly. This film is a stand-alone with only minor connections to the main series in terms of plot, so it can easily be watched if you aren’t familiar with the other films. It ranks above Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as this film annoyed less, but just below Mr. Peabody & Sherman, which handles its story slightly better.

By the way, as a side note: This film also gets points for having a Pitbull song in the end credits that doesn't make me want to gouge out my eardrums. I'm looking at you, Men In Black 3.

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