Full disclosure: I’m not a Madagascar guy. I dimly recall the first installment in the franchise, but if I ever saw either of the two sequels (to date), it left no meaningful imprint on my hippocampus. So I came to the first feature-film spinoff, Penguins of Madagascar, with an open mind. Seeing it with my children, I was modestly diverted, and they somewhat more so. This is a kids’ movie that is content to remain a kids’ movie, in contrast to the somewhat grander aspirations of, say, Big Hero 6.
The movie’s titular penguins (voiced by Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon, and Christopher Knights) are a quartet of self-styled Mission: Impossible-like agents who open the film by infiltrating Fort Knox on a whim. There, however, they meet the nemesis that they never knew they had, an Octopus named Dave (John Malkovich), who occasionally passes for human under the alias Dr. Octavius Brine. (Yes, it’s a stretch.) Maddened by the cuteness of penguins, he hatches a plan to capture them from zoos all over the world and, using his “Medusa serum,” turn them into hideous monsters. Our feathered-and-flippered heroes try to put a stop to this infernal plot, with the help of a secret interspecies strike force called The North Wind, commanded by a gray wolf (Benedict Cumberbatch) so deep undercover that even his name is “Classified.”
Penguins of Madagascar is an amusing though lightweight romp, featuring some nice vocal performances—in particular by Cumberbatch, Malkovich, and, in a tiny but hilarious cameo, Werner Herzog. And there are enough knowing gags scattered throughout the film (notably, a series of puns on movie-star names) to keep grownups engaged.
But Thanksgiving is a time for family and for shirking work, and out of respect for both traditions—and in recognition that I am surely not in the movie’s demographic sweet spot—I’m handing the heavy lifting over to my kids, Tom (11) and Alexandra (9). I’ve done this twice before, with Ice Age: Continental Drift and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, and those who wish to track Tom and Alex’s critical evolution are welcome to do so. Those, on the other hand, who are left cold by the whole “I let my kids review the movie” shtick should probably bail out now. [Ed note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and to remove some instances of my children being all-too-obviously smarter than I am.]
So, guys, who were your favorite characters in the movie?
Tom: I think Benedict Cumberbatch did a very good job as Classified. I also liked Short Fuse [voiced by Ken Jeong]. And I also liked Corporal [Peter Stormare], because he’s like, “You’re so cute” to all the penguins.
You probably liked Benedict Cumberbatch in part because you like him in Sherlock, right?
Tom: I still like him better as Sherlock, but he did a very good job as Classified.
How about you Alex, who was your favorite character?
Alex: Well, I have two favorite characters. One of my favorites was Classified, because he’s a wolf, and wolves are my second-favorite animals.
What’s your favorite animal?
Alex: My first-favorite animals are red pandas.
Red pandas and then wolves?
Alex: Yeah, and then foxes. [Ed note: Alas, there are no red pandas or foxes in the movie.] I also liked the youngest penguin, Private. He was really funny, and he was cute. And I also liked Classified because he’s Benedict Cumberbatch. I think he was a little better in Sherlock, but that’s because they have, like, nine episodes, so you really get to know his mood.
Tom: Yeah. In this movie, he had major mood swings. At the very beginning he’s like, “You are the helpless penguins,” and by the end he’s like “you guys are amazing.”
What did you guys think of Dave the Octopus?
Alex: I thought he was really funny.
Tom: I thought it was very weird that he could make it look like he was a human. That was very strange. And I’m kind of surprised that when he turns all the penguins into monsters and he’s pretending to be human, the other humans didn’t notice that he was sticking to walls and doing all that octopus stuff. I think I would have noticed that.
So, if you were making a Penguins of Madagascar movie, what kind of animal do you think would make a good villain?
Tom: Oooh. Maybe a leopard seal, because leopard seals are the enemies of penguins.
Alex: I’d make the leopard seals henchmen, like really tough henchmen-slash-bodyguards.
And what would you make the main villain?
Alex: Maybe, like, a big seahorse?
How did this movie compare to other animated movies you saw this year, like Big Hero 6 and How to Train Your Dragon 2 and The Lego Movie?
Alex: I think there were a lot of great movies this year and it’s hard to compare them.
Tom: I think Big Hero 6 is still the best. It’s nice, and it’s sweet, and it’s very sad and funny. And then this movie—I think it’s a tough call, but this was probably better than the other animated movies this year. And it was better than Madagascar 3.
Alex: It was much better than I expected from the commercials.
If you were in charge of coming up with a story idea for a sequel, what would it be?
Tom: The North Wind should help again, but this time there should be a much deadlier plot. The Medusa serum was a little gross, but …
Not that scary?
Did it remind you of the ray that turned the minions into monsters in Despicable Me 2?
Tom: Not really. The monsters in Despicable Me 2 were, like, invulnerable. They could swallow bombs and not blow up. In this movie, the ray just made the penguins look weird.
Alex: I agree. The Medusa serum was a bad idea. They needed to have something more creative. It didn’t really turn the penguins crazy—they still wanted to hug everyone—it just made them ugly. If it’d turned them into actual monsters that were bloodthirsty, that’d be okay. But instead it’s like ewww, you’re ugly. Get over it.
What do you think should happen in a sequel, Alex?
Alex: They should go back in time. And they should have new little baby penguins. And they’d have to survive the kinds of things that used to be around.
You mean back in prehistoric times?
Alex: Yeah. And the North Wind would go with them. And I think Classified should be older, and almost ready for retirement.
So, older than me?
Tom: I don’t know. It’s hard to be that old.
Nice. I kinda walked into that one. Any final thoughts on the movie?
Tom: It was a very good movie for people who like action and comedy. If you liked Madagascar, you’ll like this.
Alex: I thought it was really funny, and there were a lot of good characters. And if you watch Sherlock, it has [stage whisper] Benedict Cumberbatch in it.
So, in sum: Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific—but you already knew that—and judging penguins solely on their appearance is not cool, even if they’ve been mutated by an octopus villain’s ray machine. More to the point, if you’re looking to kill a few family-time hours over the holiday weekend, you could do worse than Penguins of Madagascar, especially if you’ve already seen Big Hero 6.