You have to respect a kids’ cartoon that kicks off with a Werner Herzog joke — even one so willfully, wondrously stupid and lighthearted as Penguins of Madagascar. The latest installment in Dreamworks Animation’s surprisingly lucrative, globe-hopping, talking-animal franchise is refreshingly devoid of subtlety or emotional resonance or even proper story structure. Its most nuanced joke is its very existence: The penguins were always the best part of the Madagascar series, so now they have their own movie, and the other animals are not particularly pleased about it.
Specifically, the penguins’ popularity has driven one particular creature, Dave the Octopus (voiced by John Malkovich), mad with jealousy and resentment. The new film is a James Bond–ian adventure involving the Dr. Evil–like Dave’s deviously inane plan to kidnap and turn New York’s penguins into gruesome monsters, thus extinguishing their cuteness and, hopefully, their public appeal. Along the way, our adorably incompetent heroes find themselves allied with an expert task force of Arctic animals led by a stuck-up wolf (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). The latter’s name is classified, so he’s known as Classified.
I’ll admit it, I was pretty lost for vast stretches of Penguins of Madagascar, but not necessarily in a bad way. Loose, fast, and free, the film throws every possible dumb gag at you as it races along. Half the time, you laugh at a joke before you can decide if the joke is good or not. Observe: In the film’s most notable running gag, Dave bellows out orders to his tentacled minions, each of whom has been named for maximum wordplay potential: “Drew, Barry … more power! ... Hugh, Jack … man the cannon! ... Nick, cage the penguins!” Is that even funny? I’m still not sure! But the film’s insistence on it is pretty impressive. By the end, I couldn’t decide if I was laughing at the joke itself or the fact that the film was still going at it, repeating the same gag in countless iterations.
Relentless frivolity certainly has its place, and has a long tradition. Penguins of Madagascar doesn’t have the bracing irreverence or breakneck inventiveness of The Emperor’s New Groove (a film whose classic status is further confirmed with each passing day), but it does have some of that same freewheeling, throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks spirit. And there’s actually something refreshing about an animated film these days that doesn’t try to pull your heartstrings, that doesn’t put you in the position of having to determine if it has earned its emotions or merely manipulated them. All Penguins of Madagascar wants to do is make you laugh at its silliness. It succeeds.