It's hard to go wrong with penguins.
They can be elegant and emotionally engaging in real life, as the Oscar-winning documentary "March of the Penguins" beautifully captured. They can also be toe-tapping hysterical and wildly musical, as they proved in the animated hit "Happy Feet."
So how did "Penguins of Madagascar" run ... afoul?
Assault with unfortunate turns of phrase like that, I would say. The pun is a gun for "Penguins'" writers. Not a sharpshooter rifle, but a machine gun that unloads a nonstop quip barrage, mowing down the real promise of this 3-D animation action comedy.
For many, there will be enough reward to offset the risk, but do consider a flak jacket.
On the plus side, the central characters — Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller) and Rico (Conrad Vernon) — are proven comedy troopers. Already popular in the "Madagascar" films and their own TV series, a movie spinoff must have seemed a no-brainer.
An adorable baby penguin chick (Christopher Knights) has been added to the mix. Keeping up the military precision with which these particular bird buddies operate, he's dubbed Private. And he's got major cuteness powers, which he will, if necessary, use, so watch out.
There is an elite black-ops team, the North Wind, fighting the same good fight as the covert penguins. The result: wire-crossing complications and the film's most extensively animated action scenes. The Wind is led by the appropriately arrogant gray wolf agent named Classified, voiced with a great deal of brio by Benedict Cumberbatch.
The villain, Dave, a.k.a. Dr. Octavius Brine, is a purple octopus with a bruised ego and brilliantly brought to life in one of those great arranged marriages between animation creativity and voice agility — in this case John Malkovich providing the verbal theatrics
Animation veterans are in charge, starting with directors Eric Darnell (the "Madagascar" films) and Simon J. Smith (Jerry Seinfeld's "Bee Movie"). The screenplay was in the hands of the TV and film writing team John Aboud and Michael Colton, plus Brandon Sawyer, an Emmy-winning staff writer on "The Penguins of Madagascar" TV series.
The animation itself is madcap crazy in weaving together tight scrapes and cultural references. Typical is the opening shot in Antarctica, with penguins making a lemming-like march to a hole in the ice. Werner Herzog, whose documentary "Encounters at the End of the World," took a rather more serious look at the region, provides ponderous narration. Cut to the film crew that is shooting it....
That particular mash-up is a fine one. It reflects the sort of pop cultural multilayering for which DreamWorks Animation has come to be known.
This makes "Penguins of Madagascar" a surprising slip for the studio, which usually has its animation ducks in a row — or dragons, or pandas, or Shreks. Penguins should have made the lineup.
The story, like everything else, tries to do too much. It's an origins story, a mission impossible, a coming-of-age saga, a revenge story.
After that brief opening bit in the cold, an action sequence sets the four comrades in arms on a globe-hopping journey of having fun and righting wrongs. Soon they are in Dave's clutches. A flashback to a SeaWorld-styled aquarium explains his issues: Dave ruled until the penguins turned up and stole the oohs and aahs. Now he's penguin enemy No. 1.
Fortunately, at least for Dave, he's also a scientific genius who has spent the intervening years collecting snow globes and concocting some yucky green stuff. Dave, by the way, is equally comfortable tucked inside his Dr. Brine lab coat and gloves as he is going au naturel, all tentacles, teeth and bulbous big head. He's got an octopus army of various bright colors, which looks pretty cool doing his nefarious bidding.
Dave is able to get a lot done since Skipper and his crew are constantly jockeying for position with Classified and the North Wind team. When the green stuff hits the fan, so do the life lessons.
The ones to remember are: Sometimes you have to sacrifice a lot to help your friends, good guys can accomplish more if they work together, never make a purple octopus angry, and when in doubt, don't let the puns kill the fun.
MPAA rating: PG for mild action and some rude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes