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The beginning of Penguins of Madagascar is so funny it makes you almost weep. Not with hilarity — though there’s that too — but with sheer gratitude that a digital animation feature for kids, a genre becoming proverbial for fatuous frenzy, has produced a sophisticated joke. And a brilliant one. “Penguinss!” hisses the unmistakable overvoice of Werner Herzog — rapt, intense, messianic — as he introduces the first shot of a bleak cartoon tundra filled with birds, as if launching one of his apocalyptic docs about nature’s inhumanity to nature.
The gags keep coming, if not quite to that measure, in what may prove, faute de mieux, the 2014 Christmas season’s hot ticket for pre-teens. The statutory slapstick overkill arrives in the last reel, as everything animal/vegetable/mineral fizzes around New York’s sky in a baddies-versus-goodies showdown. But before that the four penguins from the Madagascar series, here stars of their own show, conveyor-belt the nicely crafted quips and stunts while contending with “Dave”, the evil shape-shifting man/octopus voiced by John Malkovich.
Dave has his own line in cine-literate comedy crackers, a supervillain obsessed — no doubt from some dark incident in childhood — with punning on film stars’ names. “Nicolas, cage ’em”; “Elijah, would you . . . ”; “Drew, Barry, more power!” It may not be Aristophanes, but it kept several critics giggling (so pickled in picturegoing we’ll laugh at most movie gags) while the subplots skittered and the supporting critters each got his/her/its proprietary throwaway. My favourite: the cockroach who picks himself up from the floor after the latest bang-crash event in Dave’s laboratory, marches dazedly towards screen left, then turns round with “Sorry, I live this way.”