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Black and white and ... all over

Waddlers test their cuteness in 'Penguins of Madagascar'

"Comic relief" isn't quite the phrase for the quartet of penguins in the "Madagascar" franchise, though the words capture the characters' absolute buffoonery. Now thrust into the spotlight in "Penguins of Madagascar," the aquatic birds prove that they're better in small doses.

Three-time "Madagascar" director Tom McGrath returns for a fourth go-around, this time with co-director Simon J. Smith ("Bee Movie"). Certainly one cannot fault the results with a lack of energy or action. "Penguins of Madagascar" has these qualities in abundance and beyond, in what feels like a desperate attempt to mask its thin, familiar storyline and lack of thematic or emotional depth. Compensations comes in the form of willful, merry senselessness and sometimes charming verbal and visual wit.

The plot, such as it is, concerns the penguin adventurers getting themselves into jam after jam, most of which have to do with a campaign to thwart evil octopus mastermind Dr. Octavius Brine, a.k.a. Dave (John Malkovich). Brash, reckless leader Skipper (Tom McGrath, working a mock-suave voice), "brains of the operation" Kowalski (Chris Miller), "demolition expert" Rico (Conrad Vernon) and "cute and cuddly" rookie Private (Christopher Knights) make a good if haphazard team, but Private longs to be viewed as "a meaningful and valued member" rather than a probie.

Dave's plot to take over the world is motivated by his jealousy of penguin popularity, but none of this coalesces enough to make "Penguins of Madagascar" truly about anything, despite feints at making a statement about appearances not mattering. What the DreamWorks Animation picture is really about is attempting a stealth remake of "The Incredibles" with a dash of "Monsters vs. Aliens."

Though disappointingly rote in many ways, "Penguins of Madagascar" will probably divert kids with ease, given its manic exertion and pace. As for their adult minders, the picture is more likely to narcotize them into holiday naps with its exhaustingly flashy CGI detail. Perhaps this is the natural order of things for tired parents seeking a break. But as Skipper says, "You know what? I reject nature! Who's with me?"

Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor. One hour, 32 minutes.

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