“Penguins of Madagascar” next step in crazy successful Madagascar series

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First Posted: 12/1/2014

God bless Werner Herzog and God bless his inability to turn down any role that’s offered to him. Herzog’s mere presence slightly improves any mainstream movie or TV show he appears in. There’s just something so delightfully incongruous about seeing the stone-faced and notoriously deadpan documentarian/filmmaker brag about chewing his fingers off in an otherwise useless Tom Cruise film or apathetically slur out jokes on a mediocre episode of “The Simpsons.” He clearly has no business being here and that’s part of the fun. Eventually the novelty of watching the auteur behind Fitzcarraldo inexplicably appear in glittery, hastily assembled shit will wear thin. But before that time comes, there’s still something gently subversive about Herzog being cast in a spy movie starring a quartet of wisecracking penguins.

Yes, believe it or not, Herzog’s distinctive voice is one of the first things you’ll hear in “The Penguins of Madagascar” – the fourth entry in the seemingly unstoppable “Madagascar” series. He even cameos as a thinly veiled version of himself ordering a sound guy to push the titular penguins off a cliff. His very brief appearance sets the bar exceedingly high and implies something way smarter, stranger and darker than we actually get. Because once Herzog disappears, it’s business as usual once again and “The Penguins of Madagascar” transforms into just another kids movie.

Taking place immediately after the events of “Madagascar 3: Poo, Fart, Whatever, Animal Parade” (probably not the actual title but I just couldn’t bother to put in the five seconds of effort it would take to look this up on IMDb), “The Penguins of Madagascar” finds the penguins of Madagascar (they have names, but again, looking the info up on IMDb takes about five to six seconds. And whatever those names may be, they’re still not going to be half as good as Squirtsey, Bounce-Bounce, Chubbley Betsley and all of the other penguin names that have filled most of the pages in my animal names journal) breaking into Fort Knox just to steal a bag of a discontinued Cheetos-like snack.

Along the way they raise the ire of a supervillain octopus (voiced somewhat inexplicably by John Malkovich) who wants to eliminate all the penguins in the world because, in his words, “they’re far too cute”. However, like all bigoted cartoon octopuses, I suspect his real issue with the penguins lies in the fact that they’re half-black. That’s right. You heard me. It’s the 21st century. Diversity is knocking on the door. It’s time you finally answered it with nothing but stiletto heels and a smile, America.

At any rate, things get hazy at this point. There’s a serum that can give talking animals green, pustule-laden afros, Benedict Cumberbatch is the voice of a preening Siberian husky that mispronounces the word ‘penguins’ and a moral about ‘not judging a book by believing in yourself that the real treasure is knowledge’ is awkwardly shoehorned in at the end. On the plus side, there’s significantly less farting in this than I expected.

To be fair, if I was a kid, I’d probably enjoy this film because it contains the type of things that every child would love such as gondola chase scenes, silly animals eating even sillier animals and intentionally terrible impressions of Charlton Heston. But as an adult “The Penguins of Madagascar” simultaneously comes off as obnoxious and bland. The film feels like it was made by desperately unfunny people who tried, and failed, to combine the manic energy of “Looney Tunes” with the savvy snark of “The Simpsons” in their prime.

Bad celebrity name-based wordplay, cutesy, oh-so-merchandiseable baby versions of the penguins and Ken Jeong’s screechy voice are viciously rubbed in your face with a casual disregard to your patience or rash prone face. But then, if you’re under the age of 13 this should cause you to clap along in excitement or squirm uncomfortably in boredom. It’s one of those. I don’t know which.

Look, I’m not your dumb dumpster kid, OK? Just tell them to stop sneezing on me when I’m sitting in the theatre. I may be grotesquely pale but that doesn’t mean I’m made out of Kleenex. Gah!