'Penguins of Madagascar': Film Review

Rising to the top of the franchise’s food chain doesn’t necessarily make for a happy feat

John Malkovich and Benedict Cumberbatch join in the penguins' hijinks in this 'Madagascar' feature spinoff

Those zany DreamWorks scene-stealers headline their very own origin story courtesy of Penguins of Madagascar, but being handed the keys to the kingdom comes with its pitfalls.

While there are plenty of madcap antics to fill a feature, all that manic energy ultimately proves to be more exhausting than exhilarating.

Lacking the balancing presence of the endearing-neurotic menagerie voiced by Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith, the franchise, which improved noticeably with each installment, fails to advance in its fourth go-round.

The Thanksgiving weekend offering should still score handsomely, although it remains to be seen if some potential box-office thunder might be stolen by the similarly named Nickelodeon series that has been airing regularly since 2009.

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Things kick off promisingly in Antarctica, where dozens of the waddling denizens are the subjects of a documentary voiced, with a true stroke of inspiration, by the inimitable Werner Herzog.

Breaking from the flock to chase after a runaway egg are younger versions of the fearless Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath), quick-thinking Kowalski (Chris Miller) and loose cannon Rico (Conrad Vernon).

Unsurprisingly, the occupant of that egg turns out to be the cute runt of the team, Private (Christopher Knights), but he isn’t the only thing that’s been hatched.

So has a nefarious plot to corral all of the world’s penguins by the vengeful Dr. Octavius Brine aka Dave (played by John Malkovich with gleeful abandon), an octopus who has figured out a way to make them less adorable.

Co-directors Eric Darnell (the three previous Madagascar films) and Simon J. Smith (Bee Movie) admittedly keep the action at a high pitch as the caper ping-pongs from Antarctica to Venice to Shanghai to New York.

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There’s much breaking of wind and blowing of chunks along the way, but there are also some smart visual gags provided by screenwriters John Aboud, Michael Colton and Brandon Sawyer.

But even with the added presence of Benedict Cumberbatch, playing an undercover operative wolf who goes by the name of Agent Classified, the 3D animated Penguins of Madagascar still comes up a bit flat.

Without first establishing a sturdier foundation comprised of more individually developed, relatable core characters, much of the shtick fails to stick.

Production companies: DreamWorks Animation, PDI
Voice cast: John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom McGrath, Christopher Knights, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon, Peter Stormare, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru
Directors: Eric Darnell, Simon J. Smith
Screenwriters: John Aboud & Michael Colton, Brandon Sawyer
Producers: Lara Breay, Mark Swift
Executive producers: Tom McGrath, Mireille Soria, Eric Darnell
Composer: Lorne Balfe

Rated PG, 91 minutes