Talking-animal spy comedy Penguins of Madagascar, a spin-off of talking-animal prison-break comedy Madagascar and its sequels, plays like a sampler of Dreamworks Animation’s worst creative impulses: sugar-rush pacing, pandering meta-gags, and a slick, flavorless animation style.
These pervasive shortcomings make it impossible to enjoy this desperate-to-please film’s two most distinctive assets: voice actors John Malkovich’s and Benedict Cumberbatch’s comically unhinged performances as the film’s wet-blanket antagonists. Malkovich’s Octavius Brine, a malevolent octopus, and Cumberbatch’s Classified, an uptight wolf-cum-superspy, serve as comic foils for the hyperactive, happy-go-lucky penguin protagonists: bossy Skipper (Tom McGrath), level-headed Kowalski (Chris Miller), dimwitted Rico (Conrad Vernon), and nervous-nelly Private (Christopher Knights).
Following these devil-may-care penguins’ manic attempts to help Classified stop Brine from kidnapping penguins around the world is like being trapped on a runaway wooden roller coaster for 95 minutes. First Skipper and his group binge on junk food at Fort Knox. Then they flee from evil octopi in a Venetian gondola race. Then they crash-land in Hong Kong, and try to stop Brine from kidnapping local zoo penguins.
Skipper’s gang stumble around and needle both Classified and Brine with their monotonous quirks, like McGrath’s fine-in-small-doses Captain Kirk–esque inflection and Knights’s squeaky-toy stammer. It all just makes you want to root for the exasperated bad guys.