The Madagascar series has beaten the laws of diminishing returns by becoming funnier and more entertaining as sequels roll on. From Ice Age-aping beginnings, with little more than an inspired Chris Rock voice performance and some wacky sidekick penguins, the franchise hit its creative and comedic stride with Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, co-written by Noah Baumbach. Now, spinning off into all-penguin territory, the narrative engine may have stalled a bit -- a spy caper that parodies James Bond films, yet more often calls to mind the pointlessness of Cars 2 -- but the laughs keep coming.

The plot, in which the heroes battle a seemingly unstoppable force of evil, is barely worth thinking about, as it mimics the structure of so many films aimed at children. It involves a resentful octopus named Dave (the voice of John Malkovich) who hates penguins for stealing all the cute in the world -- the film even opens with a March of The Penguins-style documentary shoot, narrated by the always-welcome Werner Herzog. To enact his revenge, Dave's got a machine designed to transform the cuddly arctic creatures into monsters.

The penguins (Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, Tom McGrath) team up with a covert spy operation known as North Wind, one under the bossy, know-it-all command of Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), and together they put the bad guy back in his place. As an inventive piece of storytelling, it's not exactly designed to instill wonder. It's simply a framework for gags.

But the gags are there, and they don't let up. They're agreeably silly and they're launched rapidly, manically even, from visually funny, candy-colored, octopus minions to acrobatically staged sight gags to adult-aimed (and, thankfully, double-entendre-free) jokes that kids will grow to understand with repeat viewings. It's colorful and bright, never stopping to reflect on anything deeper than the set-up for the next goofy joke, and it has no agenda more important than solidly accomplished light diversion. On these terms, it's a success. As long as you're making everyone laugh while you reach for the middle, nobody's going to fault you for it.


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