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Penguins of Madagascar provides fun and merriment for the holidays

Given that the animated penguins in Penguins of Madagascar have been stealing scenes aplenty since the first Madagascar feature in 2005, it’s almost surprising that they’ve not yet been given a feature film to call their own until now.

The penguins have hardly been inactive, however. They’ve appeared in the two subsequent Madagascar films, as well as shorts, TV specials, DVD and Blu-ray extras, and headlined their own Nickelodeon series.

But with Despicable Me’s “Minions” about to embark on their own feature (due next summer), the timing of Penguins of Madagascar seems entirely propitious.

Very much in the irreverent style of the Madagascar films it’s been spun off from, Penguins of Madagascar is a giddy, bubbly romp with plenty of verbal, visual and aural puns and shtick tossed out in rapid-fire fashion. There’s no deep meaning here, only a simple message about teamwork, and that doesn’t intrude upon or interrupt the film’s sense of fun and charm, which is definitely on the goofy side.

A brief prologue in the South Pole provides some backstory for the principal Penguins — while they’re being filmed for yet another penguin documentary, no less.

The documentary filmmaker/narrator is none other than Werner Herzog (a big laugh in itself), and it’s almost a letdown when Herzog is left behind shortly thereafter, taking his narration with him.

The Penguins – Skipper (voiced by screenwriter Tom McGrath), Kowalski (voiced by Chris Miller), Rico (voiced by Conrad Vernon) and Private (voiced by Christo-pher Knights) – fancy themselves to be an elite military unit. Indeed, they display a consistent amount of resourcefulness and ingenuity when they find themselves in trouble … even when it’s they themselves who caused the trouble in the first place.

It’s in pursuit of their favorite snack food, Cheezy Dibbles, that the Penguins are whisked away to meet the villain of our story: Dr. Octavius Brine, better known as “Dave the Octopus.” The voice of Dave is provided by John Malkovich in unquestionably the voice-over casting coup of the film, as he drops celebrity names at random while trying to dispense with the Penguins and bring his scheme to fruition (“Nicolas, cage them!” is one example).

Dave nurses a long-standing grudge against all penguins (including these) because they’re so cute, and he plots to abduct the world’s penguins to turn them into monsters.

Then people won’t think they’re so cute anymore. Simple enough.

Directors Eric Darnell, who helmed and co-wrote the trio of Madagascar features, and Simon J. Smith keep the splashy pacing from flagging, and although five writers (including McGrath and Darnell) are credited with the story and screenplay, the end result is a satisfying big-screen confection for all ages. The visual effects are elaborate and amusing, although (as is commonly the case) the 3-D offers negligible enhancement.

Temporarily free of Dave’s clutches (all eight of them), the Penguins form something of a shaky alliance with The North Wind, an international inter-species spy agency devoted to protecting animals the world over. These characters are voiced by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Stormare, Annet Mehandru and Greensboro’s own Ken Jeong, whose screeching voice is unmistakable – and impossible to ignore — under any circumstance and in any format.

The Penguins, however, are steadfast in their independence. They’re their own team, thank you very much. Of course, their antics tend to directly contradict or undermine The North Wind’s best-laid plans to save “penguinkind” from Dave’s evil designs.

(If there’s a button to be pushed, even if marked “self-destruct,” it will inevitably be pushed by a Penguin – and usually Skipper.)

This globetrotting adventure sees the Penguins turning up in Fort Knox, New York City, Venice (Italy), Madagascar (naturally) and Shanghai. One of the film’s biggest laughs is when they presume to have arrived in Dublin. Suffice it to say that they haven’t, but just try explaining geographical miscalculations to a self-assured penguin sometime. See how far that gets you! !

LOG ONTO YesWeekly.com — click on the “Flicks” section. Then go to “What’s Showing”

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