Directed by Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith
Written by John Aboud, Michael Colton and Brandon Sawyer
Based on characters created by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath
Ever since the first movie, it was almost inevitable that there would be a Penguins of Madagascar spin-off. From day one they were the ensemble darkhorses, and while the TV series was surely nice for merchandising, we all know that's nothing compared to box-office money. And it certainly would've been easy to make this a quick cash-in, but Penguins is a lot of fun, if light on drama.
When the penguins – Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon), and Private (Christopher Knights) – get kidnapped during a break-in to Fort Knox, they end up in the hands (or tentacles) of Dr. John Brine, aka Dave the Octopus (John Malkovich). He has a plan to get revenge on the world's penguins, and it's up to our group of heroes to stop them, even as they butt heads with the secret agent group North Wind, led by the wolf, Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch).
It's easily the most absurd plot so far in a series that almost prides itself on its absurd plots, but it works, mainly in the sense that it means the movie spends less time caring about the plot and more time throwing every possible gag it can at the audience. The movie makes puns any chance it gets, switches to an energetic action sequence that keeps you laughing along the way, and then goes to some silly slapstick (Rico's habit of eating everything is a regularly used one). It rarely settles down for even a moment, layering things wall-to-wall with jokes and excellent voicework. We knew how good the penguins would be, so it's especially great to have Malkovich and Cumberbatch being given a chance to stretch their voice acting abilities, with Malkovich clearly having a lot of fun playing an evil octopus.
All the comedy does mean that there is little to no room for drama or morals. Maybe Dreamworks thought they should have a breather after the particularly intense How to Train Your Dragon 2, or maybe it was just a decision to keep Penguins light – even lighter than the main Madagascar movies. It works, in that there's little slowdown of plot or any hint that they don't just want you to have fun. But it does result in a third act that shoehorns in a moral at the last second. And you can get one or two (looks aren't everything, accept help when it's given), but it's less like the movie is leading to a moral or something to think about afterwards, and more like an optional thing you might pick up or leave behind at your choice.
Penguins' success is being light fun and never trying to be anything but. It leaves itself as one of the fluffiest animated movies from a major studio in a while, but it's hard to argue with its comedic success.