For a movie that's more paint by numbers than Picasso, "Penguins of Madagascar" begins with something completely unexpected: a Werner Herzog voiceover.
Parodying his own work and documentary films' obsession with the flightless birds, the German filmmaker gives an auspiciously clever start to a movie targeted toward the under 10 set. It's a little wink to the adults in the audience right at the front.
But don't be fooled. This movie is almost exclusively and unapologetically for tots. Kids will no doubt be amused by the exhausting madcap antics of the cuddly breakout stars of the popular "Madagascar" films. Parents: probably less so.
The story reintroduces audiences to the illustrious spy team, giving penguins Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon) and Private (Christopher Knights) a bit of an origin story before blasting them back into their espionage work.
After an amusing heist, the penguins are taken captive by the evil octopus Dave (John Malkovich). It's revealed that Dave (aka Dr. Octavius Brine) is out for revenge against all penguins for being the more popular and beloved attractions at zoos.
The brothers-in-arms manage to break out of Dave's tentacled grasp in an imaginative high-speed gondola chase through the Venice canals. When the thrifty penguins are backed into a corner, they're relieved when The North Wind, an elite special ops team, wafts in for a stylish rescue.
Led by the debonair Agent Classified (a charmingly zany Benedict Cumberbatch), the James Bond-inspired superspies form a nebulous alliance with the penguins in order to track down the diabolical Dave.
The two teams clash over best spy practices, with The North Wind preferring meticulous, gadget-enhanced plans, while the penguins opt for hysterical improvisation. Of course the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle, but, too often, the wacky birds come across as an actual menace.
"You stole and destroyed a $19 million vehicle," Cumberbatch's Classified tells the penguins, explaining why they can't help The North Wind anymore. The audience is probably meant to feel for the penguins in this moment, but it's hard not to place your empathy with Classified. More often than not, they do a remarkable job of messing things up pretty spectacularly.
In this golden age of animation, it's especially difficult to become an instant classic. "Penguins of Madagascar" does not appear to be reaching for those heights, which is just as well. The story is simple, the characters are basic, unfussy and barely evolve, and there's no overriding lesson, moral or otherwise, to be gleaned from the tale.
What we do get is a fairly amusing, surface-level spectacle.
There's a great recurring gag involving celebrity names ("Nicolas! Cage them!" ''Drew, Barry, more power!") that adults and older children will enjoy spotting.
The voice cast is strong, but it's "Madagascar" newcomer Cumberbatch who really takes hold of the movie as Classified. His silky baritone is perfectly matched to the silly dialogue, resulting in expertly goofy readings.
Overall, neither animation nor storytelling is particularly elevated in this outing. "Penguins of Madagascar" is a passible, inoffensive addition to DreamWorks Animation's canon, even if there's a faint whiff of a North Wind spin-off sullying the contained story.
"Penguins of Madagascar," a Fox release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America "for mild action and some rude humor." Running time: 92 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/ldbahr