The main draws of 2005’s animated “Madagascar” were not the angst-ridden zoo animals voiced by recognizable stars, but the super-cool penguins that operated in the story's margins.
The foursome – Skipper (voiced by that film's co-director Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon) and Private (Christopher Knights) – became a staple in two “Madagascar” sequels and a TV series. Now they have their own movie, “Penguins of Madagascar.”
This team is a well-oiled machine, operating like an elite band of intrepid super-spies, a tiny, tuxedoed combination of James Bond, Ethan Hunt and Indiana Jones – but funnier.
Thanks to Skipper's never-say-die attitude, Kowalski's brains, Rico's ability to cough up helpful objects from his seemingly iron gullet and Private's cuteness, the team can quickly and effectively break out of, or into, anyplace imaginable.
“Penguins of Madagascar” begins with an easy visit to the interior of Fort Knox (they use their black and white bodies to roll past a black-and-white striped security gate) not to steal gold, but to raid a special vending machine that sells their beloved “Cheesy Dibbles.”
Unfortunately, they fall into the clutches of a supervillain, an octopus called Dave (voiced by John Malkovich), who plans to take his revenge on all the cute penguins of the world with a nefarious invention.
It's nothing our team couldn't handle – but another elite team with fancier equipment called North Wind turns up, causing head-butting and plan-bungling.
The ever-present Benedict Cumberbatch voices the leader of North Wind, a wolf known as Classified. Ken Jeong voices harp seal Short Fuse, Annet Mahendru is snow owl Eva and Peter Stormare is polar bear Corporal.
There’s more, too. The movie even introduces character development around Private, who must prove he's a worthy member of the team. (The movie opens with a flashback to his “hatching.”)
Previously, the penguins worked well as supporting characters because they engaged swift and sure teamwork without a lot of plot to bog them down. In this movie, various plots and subplots occasionally threaten, but cannot stop, their momentum. Several inspired chase scenes do not hurt.
Grownups with knowledge of spy movies – and a familiarity with filmmaker Werner Herzog, who has a cool voice cameo – will be rewarded. But for little ones, “cute and cuddly” teamwork wins the day.
Penguins of Madagascar
Starring: Voices of Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon, Christopher Knights, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Malkovich
Written by: John Aboud, Michael Colton, Brandon Sawyer
Directed by: Eric Darnell, Simon J. Smith
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes