Let’s be honest, Madagascar probably isn’t your favourite computer-animated film series – not while Toy Story still has legs and there’s a Finding Nemo sequel on its way. But DreamWorks Animations’ zoo animal franchise is more popular than you probably realise, with the third and most recent instalment raking in nearly $750 million (£480 million) at cinemas worldwide in 2012. A fourth Madagascar film is already etched on the release slates for 2018, but in the meantime, here’s a slightly unnecessary spin-off to tide us over.
As its title suggests, Penguins of Madagascar follows the flippered fish eaters from the original films – who are already popular enough to have their own TV series, Nickelodeon’s The Penguins of Madagascar – as they get into some japes and scrapes of their own. Initially these are light-hearted, as we see penguins Skipper, Kowalski and Rico break into a vending machine to nick a pack of “Cheesy Dibbles” for their crew’s youngest member, Private. Life gets less lolzy, though, when a villainous octopus named Dave, jealous of the penguins’ popularity with zoo-visiting humans, hatches a plan to transform them into grossly disfigured beasts with his so-called “Medusa serum”. In order to thwart the John Malkovich-voiced baddie, our feathered friends must learn to work alongside a high-tech inter-species task force called the North Wind. Their somewhat inevitable slogan: “No one breaks the wind…”
Penguins of Madagascar is a reasonably diverting romp featuring a few visually arresting set-pieces, including a fun scene showing the penguins aboard gondolas in Venice, but there’s not really enough here to keep grown-ups fully engaged. It’s also a shame that the film sends out a bit of a mixed message to kids: if physical appearance is fundamentally unimportant, as Private tells us at the end, why do the writers strive to ensure that the penguins don’t stay ugly for long after being blasted with Dave’s Medusa Serum? Still, the penguins’ pratfalls are pretty amusing, and Benedict Cumberbatch steals scenes as the voice of the North Wind’s leader, a pompous, espresso-sipping grey wolf who won’t divulge his real name because it’s “classified”. Here’s hoping we see more of this memorable character when Madagascar 4 arrives in 2018.