Release Date: May 27, 2005
Rating: PG (for mild language, crude humor and some thematic elements)
Run Time: 87 min.
Director: Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath
Actors: Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith, David Schwimmer, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer,
Life’s a jungle – and no one knows it better than New Yorkers.
Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the Hippopotamus (Jada Pinkett Smith) are four doggone lucky mammals. Pampered and admired by New Yorkers and tourists, they live a life of luxury at the Central Park Zoo. Alex poses and roars for the crowds, only to be rewarded with steak every night. Marty, his best friend, frolics for zoo visitors, while Melman, an incurable hypochondriac, delights in visit after visit from his doctors. Meanwhile Gloria, the lone female of the foursome, mothers them all.
When Marty’s 10th birthday rolls around, his friends try and talk him out of the fantastical idea that life in the wild – something he dreams about, to the tune of “Born Free” – could be better. But Marty wants to learn for himself, so when the penguins make a break for it, leaving behind a tunnel, Marty takes off. Alex, Gloria and Melman follow, hoping to bring him home.
Soon, the animals find themselves surrounded by police at Grand Central Station. But when the activists get involved, they’re all shipped off to Africa, along with the penguins, who are none too happy about that destination. It’s Antarctica they want, so the four webfooted friends make another break. They take over the ship, turn it 180 degrees and head north. During the hairpin curve, however, four large crates fly overboard, stranding Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria on a beach in Madagascar. It’s not New York in the least, so can they survive? And what in the world are those crazy squirrel-looking animals?
Inspired by the old-fashioned cartoons of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, which hark back to the '30s and '40s, the artistic minds at DreamWorks Animation have shown us just how far animation has come during the last few decades. The buildings of New York are incredibly realistic looking, as are the fauna and flora of Madagascar. The animals create shadows, run into spider webs and have amazingly life-like facial expressions. Alex’s mane ruffles in the wind and becomes frizzy from the jungle humidity. It’s all a sight to behold.
The DreamWorks team is also known for its references to pop culture – primarily as a way of reaching adult audiences in children’s films – and this is no exception. Alex talks to a face-painted soccer ball named “Spalding” (reminding us of “Castaway”) and an age-appropriate soundtrack (except for an opening scene where a hippo dances to the music of “The Stripper’s Song”) are just a few. Fortunately, we have no cross-dressers, or gingerbread men saying “Eat me,” which we were subjected to in “Shrek 2” and “Shrek.” We also have a much more appropriate storyline for children (unlike “Shark Tale,” with its mobster message and gay agenda). We get the usual scatological (“potty”) humor about flatulence and bathroom habits – a rather disgusting addition to children’s films that Hollywood can’t seem to get away from – along with one or two mild obscenities, but thankfully, no sexual references.
For children’s humor, “Madagascar” relies mostly on slapstick – and to hear the howls of laughter around the theatre, it works. Personally, even as a child I preferred more intelligent humor (especially character-based humor, which we see some but not enough of here), and I still do. But alas, I seem to be very much alone in a culture that enjoys watching people trip, crash and generally make hapless fools of themselves. And, with its box office lure, I’m sure we’re stuck with it all. However, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something inherently sinful about laughing at other people’s misfortune, however mundane.
As for the acting, Ben Stiller has finally found his niche. With more than a bit to remind us of his performance in the atrocious “Zoolander,” I would strongly encourage this actor to stick with animation. He really and truly belongs in an animal role. Chris Rock does a good job as Marty, as does Jada Pinkett Smith as Gloria (although, like most female animated roles, hers is far too limited). Schwimmer’s droopy voice is perfect for Marty; Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G) is cute as King Julien the 13th, king of the lemurs (those squirrel-looking animals native to Madagascar); and Cedric the Entertainer is certainly entertaining as Maurice, his sidekick.
On the downside, the film is fairly slow in its pacing, with a beginning and a middle that are both way too long. It also misses the boat when it comes to depth of characterization – especially with Marty, Alex, Melman and Gloria. As savvy New Yorkers, why don’t the four friends use savvy street smarts to overcome their island woes?
I’m also trying very hard not to see a dig at President Bush and Vice President Cheney, even though Julien – however well-intentioned – is stupid, theatrical and egotistical, whereas Maurice is shorter but larger, and clearly the “intelligent” one who “should be” in charge. I did enjoy the British monkeys, however, one of which is deaf. But it is the escaping penguins who steal the show. My favorite line, once they finally reach Antarctica (only to find themselves in a blinding snowstorm). Pause. “Well, this sucks.”
The message in the film? It’s buried and weak, but “Madagascar” seems to be saying that we should be happy wherever we are in life, and that we should recognize the importance of loyalty and friendship. In a nod to animal activists, it also points to the beastly nature of animals, and how we can only tame that nature so much (on the island, as Alex starts to get hungry, he starts to get very interested in Marty as a dinner companion). Too bad we don’t see the same message about humans in Hollywood films. But no, that’s right. We’re all inherently good. Oh, yeah.
It’s not “Shrek” or “Shrek 2,” but then again, it’s not “Shark Tale,” either – and for that, we can be thankful. Still, however unoriginal (except for its animation) “Madagascar” may be, it’s an entertaining and age-appropriate “fish out of water” story that will please families and children alike.
AUDIENCE: Children, teens and adults