Before the babbling minions of Universal's "Despicable Me" movies became so popular, there were the wisecracking penguins of DreamWorks Animation's "Madagascar" films. The first, in 2005, introduced the penguins as four bumblers who believe they comprise a military task force. It seemed like a limited joke, but in 2008, Nickelodeon gave the penguins their own series, and now DreamWorks is giving them their first feature.
It's easy to see why the penguins appeal to children, because they essentially are children. Skipper (the voice of executive producer Tom McGrath) is the group's fearless and clueless leader; Kowalski (Chris Miller) handles technical details; Rico (animator Conrad Vernon) wrecks stuff; Private (Christopher Knights) is their lovable tag-along. Like children, the penguins are forever playacting in a make-believe world, yet never come to real harm. In fact, their various mishaps and indignities merely force everyone else to play the long-suffering adult. In the 2005 film, it was the penguins who accidentally sent the main characters to Madagascar in the first place.
Like the Nickelodeon series, "Penguins of Madagascar" takes place almost entirely in the penguins' free-associative fantasy. First, they break into Fort Knox. That leads to a confrontation with Dave (John Malkovich), an evil octopus who masquerades as human. Intruding on their showdown, however, is the North Wind, a far more professional task force led by a snooty wolf named Classified (a silky Benedict Cumberbatch). His hastily sketched colleagues are a polar bear, a seal and a rather vixenish owl (the voices of Peter Stormare, Ken Jeong and Annet Mahendru, respectively).
Frenetically directed by Simon J. Smith and Eric Darnell from a multi-writer screenplay, "Penguins of Madagascar" makes little sense, even on its own terms. Weird details rankle: When Classified bemoans the loss of his "$19 million plane," it brings up ideas of real-world currency and aerospace manufacturers. Contemporary references abound, and Dave's octopi-henchmen are occasion for various celebrity-based puns like, "Nicholas? Cage them!"
"Penguins of Madagascar" was clearly made for children, but it also feels like it was made by them. Maybe that's exactly the point.