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It's unfair to expect any penguin to take flight, but the "Penguins of Madagascar" struggles to stay afloat when separated from its home franchise.

Entertaining, but inessential, in DreamWorks' three animated "Madagascar" films, the titular quartet has also headlined a Nickelodeon cartoon. While their feature debut certainly scores some laughs, it also fails to maintain momentum or to justify its rather bizarre premise.

For the uninitiated: The penguins in question are Skipper (the leader), Kowalski (the smart one), Private (the simpleton) and Rico (the loopy mute). While Skipper's blustering authority and Private's dopey earnestness register on their own, kudos if you can remember anything about the other two beyond their basic archetypes.

Together, the four form a secret-agent team of sorts, an idea that works better in the larger context of the "Madagascar" series, but feels rather random in isolation. But the oddity of that central conceit still pales in comparison to the enemy our foursome face. A mad octopus scientist (the delightfully oily voice of John Malkovich) is out to transform our protagonists and a string of other penguins into ugly mutants, as revenge for the birds repeatedly stealing his limelight in a string of zoos.

Yes, it's a children's cartoon and silliness is the point, but even Elmer Fudd or Wile E. Coyote could do better than that. The filmmakers are clearly going for that Looney Tunes spirit, and they don't come up completely empty-handed. Some action scenes, like a hyperactive chase through the canals of Venice, are truly amazing in their visual cleverness.

But there's just not enough substance to the basic concept to merit a full-length feature. While "Madagascar"'s young faithful will likely get the most out of this flick, even they are likely to find they prefer these penguins in smaller doses.

'Penguins of Madagascar'

GRADE: C

Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor

Running time: 92 minutes

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