Madagascar

| May 30, 2005 | 0 Comments

DreamWorks’ Madagascar is a perfectly serviceable diversion for younger kids, but has none of the sophistication of other animated fare of late, required to get parents just as excited to see the films as their tykes.
The story is small in scope and straightforward, stretched wafer-thin into even the brief running time of 86 minutes. We open in the Central Park Zoo, where our heroes, Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett-Smith), and Melman the hypochondriac Giraffe (David Schwimmer) all live in the lap of luxury, their every neurotic and self-indulgent desire attended to. After an encounter with some penguins intent on escaping into the wild, Marty has a zebra mid-life crisis and realizes he wants more from life than playing second banana to Alex’s “act” for the kiddies at the zoo: he wants to experience the wild, too. Alex, Gloria, and Melman all think Marty’s crazy to want to give up their posh lifestyle, but can’t talk their friend out of it. When Marty sets out into the streets of New York, headed for Grand Central Station, his loyal friends head out to rescue him and bring him back. The four of them are none-too-promptly rounded up in Grand Central by an army of cops (“the man” as Marty calls them), sparking a media frenzy which calls into question the appropriateness of keeping such “wild” animals confined. As a result, the zoo’s inhabitants are shipped off to a nature preserve in Africa.
Through a series of unfortunate events, the group winds up shipwrecked. They wash ashore in Madagascar, expecting to find new humans there to greet them. Instead, they find a tribe of goofy lemurs, who dub them the New York Giants. The lemurs realize that Alex’s presence keeps their own predators at bay, and so forge an alliance with the “freaks,” sharing the fruits of the island with them and showering them with adulation. Soon enough, however, nature rears her ugly head, and Alex’s fruit salad diet isn’t cutting it. He starts salivating over his best friend, Marty, and can’t understand why–until the lemurs explain where those steaks Alex loved at the zoo came from. Terrified and ashamed of the Mr. Hyde that nature is turning him into, Alex quarantines himself, away from his friends. But when the penguins, disenchanted with Antarctica, manage to bring the ship back, Marty refuses to abandon his friend. The penguins teach Alex the wonders of sushi, and the mystery of how he and Marty can stay friends in the wild is solved.
The story is slight–a cautionary be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale that ultimately teaches our sissified zoo animal protagonists how to compromise with and survive in the wild. Though it is a shallow, animated interpretation of City Slickers, there are no grand story structures or character arcs here as in much of the high-caliber animated fare of late (The Lion King’s thinly disguised interpretation of Hamlet, The Incredibles’ wonderfully rich, conflicted characters, etc.)–but that doesn’t detract from its kiddie appeal. The adults in the audience get an occasional chuckle at references to American Beauty or Castaway that sail over the heads of their kids, but this camera-winking isn’t enough to sustain much interest. Much of the comedy doesn’t deliver on an adult level, despite the presence of surprisingly toned-down performances from Chris Rock and even Sacha Baron Cohen (a.k.a. Ali G.), who voices King Julien of the lemurs.
Because of its bare-bones storyline, pacing suffers. Our gang doesn’t even get to Madagascar until 30 minutes into the movie–far too long for a film bearing this title. Once they arrive on the island, story-wise, there’s not much more that happens, other than Alex’s self-realization and his friendship with Marty subsequently beating the odds. As a result, the movie starts to feel like a bunch of moderately entertaining beats strung together rather than a coherent whole.
The themes of quasi-cannibalism are treaded over lightly here, but still plague the film through to its conclusion, where Alex’s pesky little bloodlust problem is solved by feeding him… Nemo?? Alex’s salivating over his friends, turning them into visions of giant steaks in his head, is undeniably a little disturbing, and will no doubt spark some confusion among kids.
Performances are adequate, but one can’t shake the feeling that Chris Rock’s Marty is DreamWorks’ lame attempt at duplicating the Eddie Murphy/Donkey magic of Shrek. Schwimmer, as Melman, exploits his whiny, neurotic “Friends” persona to good comedic effect here, and Pinkett-Smith and Stiller are competent as the level-headed hippo and the conflicted but loveable lion, respectively. Cedric the Entertainer voices King Julien’s right-hand man, and Andy Richter rounds out the all-star cast as the head penguin.
The soundtrack is a fun supplement to the film, filled with some great disco hits (“Boogie Wonderland” and “Stayin’ Alive,” for instance)–Cohen’s rendition of “I Like To Move It Move It” is a highlight–but legendary composer Hans Zimmer’s few original pieces sound phoned-in. Animation has the sophisticated 3D photography of the better CGI films, but since the characters are rendered overly-cartoonish rather than as textured, human-like creatures, the technology is lost on them–the movie would have worked just as well with old-school computer animation.
Though Madagascar will undoubtedly soon enjoy a long shelf-life in the DVD cupboards of family households across the country, the film doesn’t live up to the better, more elevated examples of feature animation in recent memory, and isn’t worthy of a $20 multiplex outing. The kids won’t miss much by waiting for this one.

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