'Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa' Wastes Time on the Stuff Between Gags

DreamWorks Animation

Salt Lake City Weekly | November 3, 2008
Haven't we, as a nation, progressed to the point where it would be okay for our animated films simply to abandon the pretense of a plot?

There's nothing wrong with meticulously plotted animated fare, of course; something as sublime as WALL-E, for example, should always be embraced. But we should also acknowledge that sometimes episodic silliness can be more entertaining when the creators aren't straining to pretend that their movies are about more than episodic silliness. A third Ice Age movie is due next summer, and I dare you to find one person -- child or adult -- who wouldn't rather sit through 80 minutes of Scrat's always-frustrated attempts to hang on to that damned nut.

The original 2005 Madagascar appeared as the latest cog in DreamWorks' Animation's assembly line of challenges to the Pixar empire. Awash in pop-culture references and wacky supporting characters, it trudged through a central storyline -- Will happily tame Central Park Zoo lion-gone-native Alex (Ben Stiller) resist eating his zebra pal Marty (Chris Rock) after they wash up on the shores of Madagascar? -- that never felt as worthwhile as everything going on in the margins. After another visit to a similar watering hole in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, it's hard not to wonder: Wouldn't it feel like time better spent if we knocked off with the heaviness?

The set-up for the heaviness this time around begins with an attempt by our heroes -- Alex, Marty, Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) -- to return to New York via the wrecked plane in the treetop home of lemur king Julian (Sacha Baron Cohen). But a plane refurbished by penguins can only get you so far, and the animals make it just to the African mainland. There -- and what are the odds! -- Alex re-unites with the parents from whom he was separated as a cub. Won't his dad (the late Bernie Mac), the local king, be surprised that his long-lost boy is more Fosse than Mufasa.

Alex's storyline also includes a manipulative, jealous rival to his father (voiced by Alec Baldwin, and animated with a wavy pompadour of a mane) who plays on Alex's insecurities and orchestrates his exile. And if that sounds vaguely familiar, just be thankful that "The Circle of Life" isn't playing in the background. While Alex is re-visiting The Lion King, his pals wind up with character arcs that may be slightly less derivative but aren't any more interesting. Is it particularly heartbreaking watching Marty struggle with losing his individuality in a herd? Can we invest ourselves in whether or not Melman will finally confess his inter-species love for Gloria?

The better question is, why should we have to? When the original Madagascar was on its game, it had nothing to do with the quartet of principals. The best stuff involved Cohen giving voice to Julian's monomaniacal lunacy, and the activities of the paramilitary penguin foursome led by Skipper (co-director Tom McGrath). They're all back here, and nearly everything that inspires big laughs comes from them. The crash-landing sequence gets all most of its juice from the penguins' absurd attempts to deal with the situation, and their later efforts at repairing the plane include wrangling their chimp laborers through a contract dispute. And Cohen riffs splendidly as Julian, convinced of the genius of his every whim. Throw in the ass-kicking little old lady from the original film -- improbably dropped into the story while on a safari tour -- and there's more than enough material to keep everyone laughing.

So why spend so much time on the tissue-thin connective material? Would there really be a riot if, instead of a single full-length feature, DreamWorks released a collection of 10 8-minute shorts? Some contemporary animated efforts have really been barely-connected conglomerations of gags anyway, filled with attempts to congratulate the adults in the audience for recognizing a reference. The creative team here was at least daring enough to try more esoteric reference points -- the Patty Duke Show theme song and Twilight Zone rather than the original's Cast Away and Chariots of Fire nods -- so why not go all out? When every attempt at character development flops in Escape 2 Africa, maybe it's time simply to commit to making the audience laugh. If it was good enough for Bugs Bunny, it should be good enough for them.


**1/2 (two and a half stars)

Voices: Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Sacha Baron Cohen.

Directed by Tom McGrath and Eric Darnell

Rated PG.

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