As one might surmise from a film that opens with a cartoon Werner Herzog riffing on his Encounters at the End of the World narration, Penguins of Madagascar does well to put more focus on delivering a plethora of jokes, imitations, zippy repartee, and sight gags than its plot’s familiar machinations. Herzog narrates, in part, the origins of the titular quartet of penguins, led by Skipper (Tom McGrath), who’ve appeared in the three previous Madagascar films as adults. The opening sequence tracks the foursome’s breaking-off from their flock after saving a hatchling, Private (Christopher Knights), from certain death at the foreflippers of sea lions, and the film centers much of its action around both Skipper and Private’s desire for respect.
Private gets a chance to show off his spy-like skills when the team faces off against Dave (John Malkovich), a bitter octopus who can disguise himself as a nefarious scientist. Dave’s gripe has to do with cuteness, and how attention toward adorable penguins caused him to be ignored, and his solution is a humongous ray gun that turns penguins into monsters. At the same time, the script parallels his feelings of being cast aside with Skipper’s feelings of inferiority when faced with the Night Wind, a high-tech mercenary squad led by “Classified,” a wolf voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Private, Dave, and Skipper are all tired of being snubbed, but their connection is only passingly explored by the filmmakers, which makes the entire story and all the characters feel thin and thoughtless. As the film’s villain, Dave is ultimately characterized as little more than the creator of the weapon that the penguins and Night Wind must stop.
This absence of narrative development or attentiveness, however, does allow for the humor of the film to reign more freely, playing with timing, pronunciation, and wordplay with more freedom than most of its animated ilk. The gags are stuffed in, and yet the film never feels overcrowded with the jokes. The humor recalls the snappy, rampant guffaws of Looney Tunes, ’90s-era Nickelodeon cartoons, and sitcoms like Get Smart, most potently felt when Skipper mistakes Shanghai for Dublin and starts a new mission to get his team to where they already are. And Penguins of Madagascar similarly feels like a spin-off that takes the long way to do exactly what its Madagascar predecessors already did, creating an entertaining, fleeting romp that gets by on being only so much better than average.