Gag Reflex

Salt Lake City Weekly | May 24, 2005
Damn Shrek. Damn him and his lime-green hide to hell.

Before him, there was only Pixar and the pretenders in the field of computer-generated animation. And since Pixar seemed to have commandeered every talent in the field who believed that heart and story mattered--or at least had John Lasseter around to snap anyone into line who didn’t believe--the competitors had no road map.

Then along came the mega-success of Shrek, and Pixar’s rivals saw the light. What they needed, pure and simple, was gags. Lots of gags. There should be hip, pop culture-referencing gags for parents to convince them they’re watching something clever, and gags about farts and animated characters getting whacked in the groin for kids because … well, let’s face it, nothing is funnier than farts and groin-whackings. Throw in enough gags, and the audience won’t be concerned that the story consists almost entirely of messages like “Be nice to one another,” “Believe in yourself,” or “Value your friends and/or family”—stuff most of us learned from a single episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Madagascar, the latest effort from Shrek’s home Pacific Data Images, takes that formula and runs with it, with a result pretty much the same as its non-Pixar predecessors: A glossy entertainment that’s amusing, fast-paced and pretty hollow. In New York’s Central Park Zoo, Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller) revels in his role as the zoo’s star attraction, but his best pal Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) dreams of galloping free in the wild. When an opportunity to escape presents itself, Marty dashes for freedom, leading Alex--along with Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the hypochondriac giraffe (David Schwimmer)--to leave the zoo themselves on a rescue mission. But instead of getting safely back to their cages, the animals wind up in crates on a boat, eventually slipping overboard and washing up on the shore of Madagascar.

In a field driven by the latest technological advance, it’s never surprising to see a lot of “hey, check this out” attention given to whatever advance that happens to be. For Madagascar, the new wrinkle is a shift in character animation that allows for more comically elastic bodies and faces--and that means slapstick aplenty. Directors Eric Darnell (Antz) and Tom McGrath send their protagonists careening down hills, tumbling onto beaches and crashing through underbrush, achieving something closer to Tex Avery visual mayhem than CGI has previously managed (and rendering detailed backgrounds about as irrelevant as they generally were in Avery cartoons).

Lots of brain power went into stretching the characters physically, but it doesn’t appear that much went into stretching them emotionally. The big dramatic dilemma in Madagascar eventually becomes whether Alex might eat his buddy Marty after reverting to a state of nature, yet as a narrative hook it never really works. That’s largely because all four of the main animals feel strangely devoid of personality--celebrity stunt voices without actual characters attached. When peripheral critters get their moment to shine--an urbane chimp; a quartet of penguins on a paramilitary mission; a truly demented lemur king (Sacha Baron “Ali G” Cohen)--Madagascar suddenly feels energized, and the ostensible stars of the show seem even less engaging by comparison.

But there are always the gags to fall back on. Madagascar proves less relentless than something like Shark Tale in that respect, yet there are still too many bits that seem predicated entirely on the audience congratulating itself for recognizing the reference. Castaway Alex talks to a volleyball (get it?). He fantasizes about steaks gently falling like rose petals while the theme music from American Beauty plays (right?). He falls to his knees before an effigy of the Statue of Liberty and utters a variation on the line that begins this review (no one’s ever used that one before!). And lest we forget, there are also fart jokes and groin-whackings to make it fun for the whole family.

The tragedy of a movie like Madagascar is that it is often genuinely funny, even when Cohen’s lemur isn’t stealing the show. There are a few great individual shots, and too many laughs to make it a waste of time. But it continues to feel that while Pixar demonstrates pure love of storytelling, its competitors rely on an assembly line of platitude plots, high-tech dazzle and attitude. And we have that Scottish-accented ogre to thank for it.

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