This image released by DreamWorks Animation shows, from left, Kowalski, voiced by Chris Miller, Skipper voiced by Tom McGrath, Rico, voiced by Conrad Vernon and Private voiced by Christpher Knights in a scene from, "The Penguins of Madagascar." (AP Photo/DreamWorks Animation)

This image released by DreamWorks Animation shows, from left, Kowalski, voiced by Chris Miller, Skipper voiced by Tom McGrath, Rico, voiced by Conrad Vernon and Private voiced by Christpher Knights in a scene from, "The Penguins of Madagascar." (AP Photo/DreamWorks Animation)

Reeling it in: ‘Penguins’ packed with family fun

“Penguins of Madagascar”

DreamWorks Animation

1 hour, 32 minutes

There’re a couple of new kids movies coming out that I have been particularly leery of, despite being more than a little amused at their trailers. Next summer’s “Minions” is one, and this week’s “Penguins of Madagascar” is the other, both films appearing to be the epitome of Hollywood’s tendency to take a good idea and completely run it into the ground.

Both feature side characters from enormously popular films — characters who normally are not asked to maintain any sort of character arc. That would be like building an entire separate show around that crazy alien guy who showed up in one episode of “Happy Days.”*

That actually worked out pretty well, to tell the truth, and, against all odds, the “Penguins of Madagascar” does OK, too.

The story revolves around four zany penguins — Skipper, Rico, Kowalsky, and Private, who consistently manage to rise above whatever trouble they find themselves in, all the while tripling the trouble for everyone else. They were scene stealers in each of three “Madagascar” movies, and now find themselves wrapped up in international intrigue.

The film takes us back to their childhood days in Antarctica, and starts strong with a great bit about the constant desire for documentarians to film wild penguins, featuring acclaimed director Werner Herzog. Through a series of mishaps, the quartet break free of their flock, finding their way first to the Central Park Zoo, and then to Madagascar, and eventually to Europe, which is where the last film ended, with all the animals performing in a circus that the penguins happened to buy.

That’s a little complicated, but more to the point, it’s zany, which is what these movies are all about. Ditching the circus, the birds decide to break into Fort Knox where an angry Octopus, voiced gamely by John Malkovich, is waiting to capture them. Dave, as he’s known, wants revenge on all the domesticated penguins in the country reasoning that the cute and cuddly flightless birds are the reason his own zoo popularity wained.

Dave and his army of angry cephalopods are going to hit the penguins right where it hurts, in their appearance. He’s developed an anti-cuteness ray which will turn all the penguins into hideous monsters. And just when all hope seemed lost, out of nowhere comes “The North Wind,” an elite secret agency tasked with helping animals in tough situations who can’t help themselves.

Naturally our heroes resent having someone else show up to steal the show, and wackiness ensues.

I was really afraid tying any sentimentality or moral to these characters would rob them of their life. Their schtick is a kind of regimented devil-may-care bravado. They’re a lot of snappy one-liners and little else. And, as I was afraid, the weakest element of the film is the way Private learns to be a valued member of the family.

Never fear, however, this film is so jam-packed with jokes and pratfalls that a little bit of forced lesson learning doesn’t really damage the whole. And thankfully, the humor rarely turns crude, making this one a safe bet for even the youngest of viewers.

Though the film is sharply written, distinguishing it from other second tier family flicks like “Planes” or “The Nut Job,” “Penguins” is certainly light, so I wouldn’t bet on it winning any Oscars. The jokes are fast, but kind of scattershot, reminiscent of “Airplane” or “The Naked Gun,” but for kids.

For more a more impressive film, I’d recommend “Big Hero 6,” which was moving and funny, and very creative. There are parts that may be a little scary, but overall it’s a great time at the movies. Or, if you don’t want to go out, just let your kids watch “The Lego Movie” again. You know that’s what they really want to anyway.

Grade: B+

“The Penguins of Madagascar” is rated PG for mild action and some truly slight rude humor.

*If you don’t get the “Happy Days” reference or have no memory of “Mork and Mindy,” then I am truly getting old.


Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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