Whatever else may be said about Penguins of Madagascar, it certainly moves — at what seems like an almost impossible pace. To say that the movie is action-packed scarcely does it justice. It never stops to take a breath. The goal appears to be to capture the kind of unchecked anarchic madness of the last three Paramount Marx Brothers films — Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933). OK, nothing wrong with that — except that Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Private (Christopher Knights) and Rico (Conrad Vernon) are not Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo. Plus, the Marx films all had the good sense to keep around the 70-minute mark. Our flightless friends drag it out for another 20. What starts as frantic fun finally turns into frenzied desperation — what was exhilarating becomes exhausting. Yet there’s so much stuffed into the film that it almost works. And enough of it works to make it sometimes hard to resist.
How can any movie that starts with an animated Werner Herzog (with Herzog’s voice) making a documentary about penguins be all bad — especially when his unorthodox techniques actually set the whole thing in motion? Well, of course, it can’t be. It’s a terrific jab at Herzog’s manic manipulation of “facts” as well as the generally not-all-that-honest world of documentaries. However, let’s face it — this is a gag that kids won’t get, but neither will a significant chunk of the adult audience. As a result, it’s the only moment quite this rarefied in the film.
In its place, the film settles for a barrage of gags, jokes and throwaway remarks that come tumbling out so fast that it’s impossible to even weigh whether or not they’re all that funny. I’m still not sure if the running gag of incorporating famous names into the dialogue — “Nick, cage the penguins,” “Drew, Barry — more power!” — is actually amusing, but I appreciate the creativity and the fact that the movie milks it until it becomes funny in an almost Pavlovian manner. Other things — like the penguins camouflaging themselves by effortlessly rolling across a black-and-white striped floor — are just plain brilliant. The basic principle is that if you don’t like one gag, there’ll be another one along in a second. If one piece of lunacy doesn’t quite work, there’s another around the corner. I almost — almost — want to watch it again just to process it all, because there’s no way to absorb it all in one sitting. But that may very well be a good thing.
The biggest downside to the madness is the plot, which involves a mad scientist octopus named Dave (voiced with great glee by John Malkovich) with a plan to capture all the world’s penguins and turn them into monstrosities. What is the reason for this sinister cephalopod’s evil scheme? It’s revenge on our heroes for stealing his audience at marine park after marine park with their cuteness. Out to stop Dave and his octopus army are not only the title characters, but a special ops group called the North Wind (cue the inevitable wind-breaking joke), headed up by a pompous wolf (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose identity is so secret even his name is classified (cue the misunderstanding that his name is indeed Classified). At its best the storyline is serviceably stupid, which befits the movie — and does allow it to wander into agreeable 1960s-style James Bond territory. But the truth is that the plot also drags in an utterly unnecessary “everyone is important” message that’s at odds with the movie’s take-it-or-leave-it anarchic tendencies. Still, I’ve certainly sat through far less creative and clever animated movies, and when it works, it’s pretty swell. Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor.