Benedict Cumberbatch's newest mission: playing a good-looking and debonair secret agent.
Who also happens to be a wolf.
The British actor voices Classified, head of a covert protective force of animals, in the animated espionage caper The Penguins of Madagascar (due out Nov. 26). Directed by Simon J. Smith and Eric Darnell, the comedy stars the quartet of flightless birds from the Madagascar movies.
"I don't know what it's like to be a penguin, but I do know what it's like to be a super-duper-smooth classified agent," says Cumberbatch.
Like many, he digs the cinematic penguins who, even though they seem cuddly, tend toward the personalities of 1950s tough guys.
Penguins gives these commandos with a penchant for trouble a new foe: the disgruntled octopus Octavius Brine (John Malkovich), who also goes by "Dave" and is on a quest to wipe out their species.
The penguins themselves think "there's no one better to save us than us," says executive producer Tom McGrath, who's been voicing the leader, Skipper, since the original 2005 Madagascar (which he directed with Darnell).
Along the way, Skipper and his crew — brainy Kowalski (Chris Miller), rugged Rico (John DiMaggio) and young rookie Private (Christopher Knights) — come into conflict and ultimately team with the high-tech animal organization North Wind (its motto: "No one breaks the Wind").
Classified's group includes the seal Short Fuse (Ken Jeong), an explosives expert; snow owl Eva (Annet Mahendru of The Americans), an intelligence analyst with a Russian accent who's the object of Kowalski's affections; and hulking Norwegian bear Corporal (Peter Stormare), who constantly wants to embrace his four new bird friends.
"While North Wind uses all this slick gadgetry, the penguins rely on grit, spit and duct tape," says McGrath.
Cumberbatch says "there's a bit of Benedict" in Classified's voice. He was like a lot of boys who grew up with James Bond and "have fantasies of secret agents and being a spy or just working in some kind of covert manner to save the human — or in this case, animal — race."
The movie plays with various spy tropes: Octavius is always annoyed by his henchmen, but even the smartest guy in the room can't undo the mute button on the remote to his video equipment, McGrath says. "There's a humanity underneath this guy who's trying to be bad."
And the opening of the movie finds the penguins trying to break into Fort Knox to steal the last remaining vending machine containing Private's favorite snack food, 1960s-era Cheesy Dibbles, for his birthday.
Such outrageous acts by the small creatures "just tickle me,'' says Cumberbatch. "They have dreams of being warriors and yet they're these cute little black-and-white fellows who belong in the Arctic or a zoo.''
Even more heartening is that, even though they get themselves into hapless trouble, ''they are actually very needed,'' he says. "My character has to swallow his pride and team up with them, so they have their hero moment. They really do come to the fore as the chief protagonists.''