The Penguins of Madagascar return in their own movie.
PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR (U)
Birds of a feather somersault, karate kick and bicker together in Eric Darnell and Simon J Smith’s misfiring computer-animated spin-off from the Madagascar films.
Frenetic and fast-paced, Penguins Of Madagascar initially sketches the back story of the four plucky Antarctic critters with a beak for adventure through the lens of a documentary film crew, who are keen to observe the flightless birds in their treacherous natural habitat.
The script soon fast-forwards to the conclusion of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted and literally blasts the penguins into an outlandish spy caper replete with a menagerie of animal co-stars that should be a merchandiser’s dream this Christmas.
The colour-saturated animation is a feast for the eyes and there are a few neat visual gags such as the penguins’ novel approach to navigating a zebra crossing undetected.
However, the four lead characters, who are boundlessly charming in small doses as sidekicks, grate slightly as heroes of their own half-baked story.
Hopefully the adorable Minions from the Despicable Me series will dodge a similar fate when they graduate to the limelight in a self-titled feature next summer.
Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath) leads a crack squad comprising Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon) and Private (Christopher Knights) on a daring mission to break into Fort Knox in search of treasure: a luminous orange snack called Cheezy Dibbles.
From the offset, goofball Private is identified as the black penguin of the operation.
“He’s sort of our secretary-slash-mascot,” observes Skipper.
The hunt for Cheezy Dibbles leads the penguins into the clutches of nefarious octopus Dr Octavius Brine (John Malkovich), who intends to take over the world using his mutation serum.
Thankfully, Skipper and co escape and a subsequent chase with hench-octopi along the canals of Venice leads the penguins into the company of a grey wolf called Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), who works for an elite inter-species task force known as North Wind.
Fellow agents include harp seal demolitions expert Short Fuse (Ken Jeong), snowy owl intelligence analyst Eva (Annet Mahendru) and plucky polar bear Corporal (Peter Stormare).
The unlikely heroes join forces to defeat their tentacled arch-nemesis, but this collaboration will amount to nothing unless Skipper allows Private to discover the hero within.
Penguins Of Madagascar exhibits a similar lack of invention as the films which gave birth to Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private.
Brine’s master plan for global domination bears an uncanny resemblance to events in Despicable Me 2 and the underlying message of tolerance and acceptance has been preached countless times before.
“If we’ve learned anything on this delightful adventure, it’s that looks don’t matter. It’s what you do that counts,” declares Skipper.
A running joke involving celebrity names in one character’s dialogue is a cute flourish but certainly not enough for these penguins to defy evolution and effortlessly take flight.
GET SANTA (U)
After the nightmare before Christmas of Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey?!, it seemed like we were in for tidings of discomfort and joylessness.
Thankfully, Christopher Smith’s festive fable lifts the gloom with a predictable yet magical tale of a fractured family, which is reunited by the power of the season.
The writer-director is evidently a huge fan of ET, crafting an uplifting resolution that is strongly reminiscent of Spielberg’s classic, including a swollen orchestral crescendo that should perhaps be entitled An Unabashed Ode To John Williams.
Get Santa might not scale the dizzy heights of the 1982 film it hopes to emulate, but what Smith’s script lacks in subtlety and sophistication, it makes up for in heart-warming sentiment and an abundance of wholesome cheer, plus a herd of flatulent reindeer guaranteed to have tykes giggling with glee.
Admittedly, there are moments when the tone becomes sickly sweet and threatens to send the audience into sugar shock but what is Christmas without garish excess?
Getaway driver Steve Anderson (Rafe Spall) is released from prison and heads straight to a meeting with his parole officer, Ruth Morbury (Joanna Scanlan), who insists that he checks at in 5pm every day except for December 25.
“Miss an appointment and I’ll presume you’re stealing,” she growls.
His release coincides with the mysterious appearance of reindeer on Tower Bridge, which sparks a media circus.
It transpires that Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent) has crash-landed and needs help to get his sleigh airborne.
Steve’s nine-year-old son Tom (Kit Connor), who lives with his mother Alison (Jodie Whittaker) and her new partner (Joshua McGuire), discovers the figurehead of Christmas asleep in the garage and the boy telephones his old man for help.
Having waited two years, one month and three days to be reunited with his boy, Steve races to Tom’s aid and they embark on a madcap quest to save Christmas, defying Steve’s parole in the process.
Meanwhile, Santa finds himself behind bars with some of Steve’s old block mates including The Barber (Stephen Graham), Knuckles (Nonso Anozie) and Sally (Warwick Davis).
Get Santa rests largely on the shoulders of newcomer Connor and he’s a natural, sparking lovely on-screen rapport with Spall.
Broadbent, who previously voiced Santa in the computer-animated jaunt Arthur Christmas, brings warmth and gravitas to his role.
Whittaker is shamefully underused, but Scanlan savours her limited screen time, channelling the villainous spirit of Pam Ferris in Roald Dahl’s Matilda.
Lapland sequences, which were shot in Yorkshire, benefit from splendid production design and some nifty digital effects to bring to life a glittering wonderland populated by Santa’s little helpers, who apparently cannot take flight because, “If we fly over 1,000 feet, we explode.”
An act of elf-destruction - you learn something new every day.