Penguins of Madagascar
****
Directed by Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith
Written by John Aboud, Michael Colton and Brandon Sawyer

Tired of being part of the circus (see Madagascar 3), the famous penguins Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private decide to break into Fort Knox. Here they will be kidnapped by evil Octavius Brine, a genetically modified octopus whose mind is set in turning every penguin in the world into monsters.

The ever-close team of penguins is looking for new adventures. Initially our four heroes did not want anything more than a rare snake from a vending machine in Fort Knox. Yet if they now want to survive, they have to defeat Dr Octavius Brine, also known as Dave.

He is an octopus that used to live in the New York Zoo, whose feelings got hurt when the Zoo welcomed cute and pretty animals and forgot about him. Since that dramatic incident, Dave has always sought revenge against the cute penguins guilty of being loved by everyone. How can we blame him? No one likes to be replaced. Unfortunately his pain becomes a personal vendetta, and his enemies happen to be the smartest penguins in the world.

Dave’s counterpart is Private, who somehow always lives in the shadow of the other three penguins. They shut him down and undermine his initiatives, so he also is looking for payback. His choice is a different one though. His desire to shine becomes reality when he sacrifices himself for the sake of his friends. By saving his race from Dave, Private earns everyone’s respect. Even the spy agency, North Wind, appreciates him now — the same agency that never had the courage to put itself in real danger and yet used to show off its advanced technology. As the penguins’ leader, Skipper, puts it, what matters is not what you show (being admired for your physical appearance), but who you really are.

This is a good thematic come back for a movie that uses predictable narrative lines (Dave being upset for receiving a “No”) and does not have an easy plot to follow (too many characters and locations, and very fast dialogue).

Over all, it is a great movie, considering that it is part of a franchise that has been created mainly as a vehicle for pure entertainment. From the slapstick gags to the use of meta-cinema and surrealism, our four penguins succeed in the tough balance between big belly laugh material and sophisticated comedy. It does not hurt that the movie is also pleasing to the eyes in terms of special effects.

Ilaria Giudici has worked as a screenwriter and story editor during some years in Italy for Lux vide and Rai Gulp. She is a contributor to the yearly collection of cinema reviews Scegliere un film.  She currently lives in Taiwan with her husband and three children.