It seems right that Werner Herzog narrates the start of Penguins of Madagascar, concerning the overwhelming cuddly cuteness of penguins and the absurd value humans attribute to them.
Penguins of MadagascarDirector: Eric Darnell, Simon J. Smith
Cast: Tom McGrath, Christopher Knights, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare, Andy Richter, Danny Jacobs, Werner Herzog, Billy Eichner
US date: 2014-11-26 (General release)
UK date: 2014-12-05 (General release)
Werner Herzog was there first. So it is in most things. In this one, Herzog was in Antarctica, in Encounters at the End of the World, ahead of the curve on penguins.
That curve is, of course well known: penguins are cute, penguins are sympathetic, penguins love their eggs, stories repeated more than once, most enduringly by Morgan Freeman. When Werner Herzog took up his own narration, pointing out -- as he is wont to do -- that humans make fictions out of nature, project their own fantasies onto penguins -- his commentary was as entertaining as it was insightful. And so it seems right that he narrates the start of Penguins of Madagascar, concerning the overwhelming cuddly cuteness of penguins. As he speaks, the animated penguins trundle across tundra. For a moment, the joke is sharp, and then it turns into something else, broad, squishy, easy, as a trio of penguins -- heretofore supporting players in Madagascar franchise -- engage in cute antics, high-five-slapping their flippers, sliding on ice, saving an imperiled egg.
So far, so clever. But then, Penguins of Madagascar turns into another sort of movie, the sort that piles up jokes and references and allusions in lieu of conjuring a plot or characters. In this, the movie is in good -- or at least vast -- company. So-called family movies tend not to tell stories so much as they assemble various and unrelated appeals, for kids, for parents, for older siblings. None of these appeals is especially appealing, but they are all familiar, and so they suffice for holiday movie fare, guaranteed returns when families are looking for ways to spend 92 minutes out of their homes.
These 92 minutes, primarily animated by huge crews located in India and China (the end credits that go on for long minutes suggest that DreamWorks Animation has found an unoriginal way to limit its production costs), feature the previously known penguins, Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), and Rico (Conrad Vernon), as well as a younger, terminally cute "rookie" penguin who pops out of the saved egg, Private (Christopher Knights). They're introduced by way of a sadly brief encounter with Werner Herzog as an animated filmmaker who is blithely willing to create his own documentary scenarios, by, say, kicking the penguins off a calving ice shelf.
Once off the shelf, the penguins embark on a series of episodes, traveling about the world by accident, each location noted in a subtitle. These episodes are vaguely motivated by the penguins' interactions with a couple of rival spy operations, one led by an octopus named Dave (John Malkovich) and a husky who goes by Agent "Classified" (Benedict Cumberbatch). With a crew called the Night Wind, Classified manages all manner of gizmos and schemes, repeatedly reminding Skipper that, for all his self-promotion as the "elite of the elite" among penguins, when compared to the less cute and more competent creatures on earth, his team is decidedly inept.
No one takes note that this team is made of male penguins, an-all male family, with one member whose gender inclination might be potentially fluid or expansive. If Kowalski has eyes for the single female character in sight, an owl working with Classified whose name is -- incredibly unfortunately -- Eve (Annet Mahendru), it's not so much to mark him as heterosexual, as such designation is irrelevant in this universe, but instead to allow slightly more tension between the teams. She says a few words and she flies, but other than that, let's just say Eve doesn't even match the low level of supporting cast member as Kung Fu Panda's Tigress (Angelina Jolie).
The circularity of the boys' relations couldn't be more complete, or more disheartening. Someone, somewhere might imagining an alternative universe, but on this screen, for this holiday, Penguins of Madagascar offers stale ideas in energetic forms. The lesson is one you've heard before too, that even if the penguins deeply misapprehend their own skills and gifts, this only mirrors the misapprehension of others, including the North Wind operatives and, of course, Dave. As laid out here, in 3D animation, brightly colored and adequately mobile, the lesson is as predictable and as inclined to sell cute and cuddly toys for Christmas. Let's hope the animators in India have a clause in their contracts to be paid a percentage.