In March 2011, following the success of “Madagascar” and its sequel, DreamWorks Animation announced “Penguins of Madagascar,” the first spin-off film of the “Madagascar” series featuring its popular penguin characters. While the spin-off’s release was initially planned for March 2015, it slid into theaters this Thanksgiving weekend after swapping dates with another DreamWorks film. Unfortunately, “Penguins of Madagascar” fails to recreate the world of “Madagascar” or to create a valuable world of its own with an inconsistent plot, uninspiring visuals, and worst of all, shockingly flat characters.
The film starts off with a brief flashback to Antarctica, showing the origins of the penguins. Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), and Rico (Conrad Vernon) rescue an egg that is left behind, which ends up hatching into Private (Christopher Knights), the rookie member of the team and the focus of the film. Years later, after the events of “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” the penguins celebrate Private’s birthday by breaking into Fort Knox and are kidnapped by Dr. Octavius Brine (John Malkovich), a mysterious adversary who has been plotting revenge against the penguins since they took away his spotlight and fame at multiple zoos. With the help of a newly introduced team named North Wind, comprising of a wolf named Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), a polar bear named Corporal (Peter Stormare), an owl named Eva (Annet Mehendru), and a harp seal named Short Fuse (Ken Jeong), the penguins must find a way to stop Dave and his evil plans.
One of the notable reasons behind the huge success of the “Madagascar” series was solid character development. While the penguins weren’t the main focus of the series, they served as a fun addition to the primary characters. However, you won’t notice any character development in progress while watching “Penguins of Madagascar,” except for Private, who is given slightly more attention than other characters but ultimately gets overshadowed by the dynamics of the ensemble. The sudden introduction of another team of four, North Wind, also contributes to the lack of character development, spreading screen time too thin to grow distinct personalities. None of these characters develop beyond their initial limited characteristics, which results in a crowd of flat characters running around to save the day. It appears that DreamWorks Animation is shamelessly trying to take advantage of an already popular franchise to derive a new franchise from the North Wind, but the film ultimately fails to generate any interest in this group at all.
The plot of “Penguins of Madagascar” is unable to save the film from its underdeveloped characters. An origin story would have been a nice addition to the penguins we have known, but less than 5 minutes is spent that narrative. The plot is also noticeably unoriginal: the short origin story is very similar to “Happy Feet,” the chase scenes are like “Ice Age,” and the final act is quite similar to “Despicable Me 2.” Funny dialogue and clever references hold the film together, but even they fail to impress.
All three films in the “Madagascar” series featured stunning vistas of cities and wildlife that were exquisite and rich in details. However, “Penguins of Madagascar” offers no improvement in animation despite being released two years after “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.” The other major animated feature from DreamWorks Animation this year, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” took a huge step forward compared to its previous entry and wowed the audiences and critics. No such luck with “Penguins of Madagascar.” Most of the locations lack spirit and liveliness. The producers could have at least used the opportunity given by the diverse set of locations, from Antarctica to Shanghai, to create some beautiful scenery.
I had high expectations for this film because the penguins were my favorite characters in the “Madagascar” series. However, the final product feels rushed, incomplete, and more like an animated feature made for TV or Direct-to-Video release. Ultimately, I hope that DreamWorks Animation will learn from its mistakes and will do its best to make up for them in the four years before the release of “Madagascar 4.”