Blame it on lowered expectations for the umpteenth cartoon starring those commando penguins from “Madagascar,” over-exposed little darlings who stole all those movies and went on to star in their own spin-off TV series.
Or lay it at the feet of the Dreamworks Animation trademark style – slapstick for the kids, and a boatload of wisecracks aimed at the parents who also sit through these farces aimed at the under-8 crowd.
But “Penguins of Madagascar” is as “cute and cuddly” as ever, and often downright hilarious.
Kids will giggle at the plucky impertinence, the pratfalls and the sheer breakneck speed of the gags, and the occasional gas-passing joke.
And their parents? The puns, movie references and impersonations are for grownups. Hip ones will grin at the witty touch of having iconoclastic German director and “Encounters at the End of the World” documentarian Werner Herzog play a comically callous documentary filmmaker in the opening scene. Here, on “Earth’s frozen bottom,” he captures the beginnings of the penguin team.
Even as chicks, Skipper is in charge, impulsive and riffing in that Tom-McGrath-does-William Shatner-as-Kirk voice, leading tiny Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon) and the newly-hatched Private (Christopher Knights) into “adventure and glory like no penguin has seen before.”
That flashback prologue sets up the dynamic that has played out for this cute and cuddly quartet ever since.
“Kowalski! Analysis! Rico! Status report!”
“Penguins of Madagascar” is about dopey and adorable Private’s efforts to become “a meaningful and valued member of the team.” He will have his chance when an octopus supervillain named Dave (John Malkovich) sets out to rid the world of penguin-kind. But the Madagascar boys have competition in the heroics department. The well-financed, gadget-equipped North Wind inter-species commando team has a seal (Ken Jeong), a polar bear (Peter Stormare), an exotic, sexy owl (Annet Mahendru) and is led by a confident, oh-so-competent wolf (Benedict Cumberbatch).
“No one breaks The Wind!”
Director-turned voice actor Tom McGrath’s Skipper has always been what makes the penguins funny. Skipper refuses to be humbled, contradicted or corrected. His version of profanity is a hoot.
“Parker Posey! Flippin’ Frozen Tundra!” And, since they chase Dave the octopus to Venice, “Venetian BLINDED again!”
Every word out of that animated penguin’s 3D beak (you can even see the fine penguin feathers now) is funny. They pop up in Shanghai, which Skipper mistakes for Dublin.
“All right boys, River Dance!”
It doesn’t matter that the plot and characters seem like a mishmash of other recent animated offerings, as long as McGrath is cracking wise. And the team of writers spare no pun in giving the villain just as many zingers, most of which will zing over the heads of the younger viewers.
“Drew, Barry,” Dave orders his minions, “More power!”
“William! Hurt them!”
“Nicolas! Cage them!”
“Halle! Bury them!”
Whatever this little nothing of a cartoon comedy lacks – decent female characters, an original villain – the bottom line from this bottom-heavy brotherhood from the bottom of the world? They’re still cute, still cuddly, still as funny as a ninja penguin could ever be.