‘Penguins of Madagascar’ Review: Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich Lay an Egg

The charmless, disposable, and ultra-busy “Madagascar” spin-off is more likely to give audiences headaches than laughter

Ten seconds might be the longest length of time allowed to pass between nonstop nattering in “Penguins of Madagascar,” the cutesy cash-in tied to the “Madagascar” movies and the bird-centric Nickelodeon cartoon of the same name.

Directed by Eric Darnell (the “Madagascar” trilogy) and Simon J. Smith (“Bee Movie”), the unfunny, unmoving, and uninspired “Penguins” never persuades us of its need to exist. Sure, there’s a muddled lesson at the end, as tacked on as a Post-It on a piece of week-old cake.

As with so many cases of overcompensation, a frenetic logorrhea is marshaled to cover up a glaring fault: in this case, the film’s distinct lack of purpose. The manic result makes the mistaken assumption that all children suffer from untreated ADHD and that any adult could walk out of the theater without a headache.

Speaking of demographics, “Penguins” is the umpteenth DreamWorks project that caters to an audience that doesn’t exist. Jokes about Werner Herzog (who enjoys a cameo), Parker Posey, and NPR pledge drives will fly over the heads of eight-year-olds, while the hectic pacing and feather-light character motivations make the tale of four nice penguins and the evil purple octopus that wants to destroy them too silly to satisfy adults. Instead of appealing to both age groups, “Penguins” uses the presumed wants of each as an excuse to disappoint the other.

penguins-of-madagascar-peng_sq700_s22_f312_v1_0_RGB_rgbThere isn’t much to the film’s story, and yet it’s stuffed to the gills with plot. The penguins Skipper, Kowalski, Rico, Private (voiced by Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, John DiMaggio and Christopher Knights) — goofy do-gooders who take pride in their MacGyver-ish knack for fast-thinking and prop deployment — zip from Antarctica to Fort Knox to Italy to Shanghai to Brazil (but not France; “Not with those tax laws!”) to stop Dave the Octopus (John Malkovich) from kidnapping tuxedoed birds all around the world and squirting them with a mysterious, bright-green serum.

A toothed mollusk with a dancer’s ambition for novel movements, Dave could have been a compelling villain, but Malkovich’s velvety tenor is wasted on the octopus’ tic of pointless celebrity puns like “Nicolas Cage them!” and “Elijah Wood you please take them away?”

Getting in the avian quartet’s way is the highly trained, technologically advanced North Wind, a paramilitary foursome comprised of a wolf, an otter, an owl, and a polar bear. (Depressingly, only one of the nine main characters is female, and her main purpose is to be sexy. I’ll leave it to you to decide which one of those Arctic animals is the most seductive.)

North Wind’s leader, the pompous canine Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch) — who gains that nickname when he self-importantly announces to the penguins, “My name is classified” — is determined to bag Dave himself so he can take all the credit.

The film’s one unreservedly delightful scene finds the penguins fleeing Dave’s tentacled henchmen on gondolas through the canals, then the streets, of Venice: the birds use the oars as walking stilts while the octopi use their suctioning skills to swing from post to post and catapult across the city. But for too much of its running time, “Penguins” is heavy on stimuli but short on fun.

It’s an exercise in bombardment, a test of endurance, and far from anything resembling a good time.