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With: Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare, Andy Richter, Danny Jacobs, Sean Charmatz, Werner Herzog
Written by: John Aboud, Michael Colton, Brandon Sawyer
Directed by: Eric Darnell, Simon J. Smith
MPAA Rating: PG for mild action and some rude humor
Running Time: 92
Date: 11/26/2014

Penguins of Madagascar (2014)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Cute and Cuddly, Boys

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It was immediately clear, in the 2005 animated feature Madagascar, that the movie's main draw was not the angst-ridden zoo animals voiced by recognizable stars, but rather the super-cool team of penguins that operated in the story's margins.

The four penguins, Skipper (voiced by that film's co-director Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon), and Private (Christopher Knights), became a staple in two Madagascar sequels, as well as their own TV series and, now, their own movie, Penguins of Madagascar, opening Thanksgiving week in theaters.

This team is a well-oiled machine, operating like an elite band of intrepid super-spies, a tiny, tuxedoed combination of James Bond, Ethan Hunt, and Indiana Jones, but funnier.

Thanks to Skipper's never-say-die attitude, Kowalski's brains, Rico's ability to cough up helpful objects from his seemingly iron gullet, and Private's cuteness, the team can quickly and effectively break out of, or into, anyplace imaginable.

Penguins of Madagascar begins with an easy visit to the interior of Fort Knox -- they use their black and white bodies to roll past a black-and-white striped security gate -- not to steal any gold, but to raid a special vending machine that sells their beloved "Cheesy Dibbles."

Unfortunately, they fall into the clutches of a supervillain, an Octopus called "Dave" (voiced by John Malkovich), who plans to take his revenge on all the cute penguins of the world with a nefarious invention.

It's nothing our team couldn't handle, but another elite team with fancier equipment called North Wind turns up, causing plenty of head-butting and plan-bungling.

The ever-present Benedict Cumberbatch voices the leader of North Wind, a wolf known only as "Classified." Ken Jeong voices the harp seal Short Fuse, Annet Mahendru is snow owl Eva, and Peter Stormare is polar bear Corporal.

In addition to all this plot, the movie introduces extra character development around Private, wherein he must prove that he's actually a worthy member of the team. (The movie opens with a flashback to his "hatching.")

The penguins worked so well as supporting characters because they were able to engage their swift and sure teamwork without a bunch of plot to bog them down. In this movie, the various plots and subplots occasionally threaten, but cannot stop, their momentum.

Several inspired chase scenes do not hurt.

Grownups with knowledge of spy movies -- and a familiarity with filmmaker Werner Herzog, who has a cool voice cameo -- will be rewarded. But for little ones, "cute and cuddly" teamwork wins the day.

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