It’s easy to dismiss the work of DreamWorks’ animation division when held up against the heftier, instantly classic works of Pixar. But DreamWorks has found a nice niche creating solid family movies that focus more on being funny than tugging at the old heartstrings. Both Shrek movies have been laugh riots, and if they’re eclipsed by work like The Incredibles it isn’t because they aren’t great in their own way. There’s nothing wrong with a big laugh, and DreamWorks Animation is better at delivering them than anyone. They’ve proven it, by finally doing something worthwhile outside of Shrek. Madagascar is their funniest endeavor yet, on par with Disney’s accidental, wacky success The Emperor’s New Groove.
It starts with the Central Park Zoo and the animals therein. The zoo’s star attraction is Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller), a happily captive lion. By day he wows massive crowds with his antics, at night he hangs out with his zoo friends: a zebra named Marty (voiced by Chris Rock), a hippo named Gloria (voiced by Jada Pinkett Smith), and Melman (voiced by David Schwimmer) a severely hypochondriac Giraffe. Alex loves captivity and has no idea about what’s outside his zoo. In fact, he doesn’t want to know. But Marty, facing his 10th birthday and middle age, starts thinking about what it might be like in the wild. Determined to find out, Marty escapes the zoo to head for the widest open spaces he can think of: Connecticut. Shocked, his zoo friends take off after him, planning an intervention to bring him to his senses and get him back in his pen. Naturally, the citizens of New York react poorly to hippos, monkeys, and penguins on the subway and things snowball until the whole lot of them ends up in the wild, specifically Madagascar.
What sells it is the script’s sharp and lively wit, as in a scene that finds two well-educated British monkeys discussing an escape to attend a Thomas Wolfe reading. As Wolfe fans they decide to go, but of course they’ll throw poop. In fact, it’s the film’s supporting characters that get the biggest laughs, not the four animals in the thick of the story. For the most part they play it straight as Madagascar’s secondary cast of commando penguins, literature loving monkeys, and techno-dancing lemurs play off them to perfect effect. It’s there that Madagascar scores the best voice casting too, with Any Richter as one of the militant penguins, Sacha Baron Cohen as the king of the lemurs, and Cedric the Entertainer as the fuzzy lemur king’s cranky assistant.
Screenwriter’s Mark Burton and Billy Frolick deserve a lot of credit for getting so much out of what might have been a throwaway kid’s movie. The movie takes risks by avoiding obvious gags in favor of going places you might not expect. Absent is the obligatory moral lesson so often unnaturally shoehorned in to family films. If there’s any lesson to be learned here it’s probably that even the best natured lion gets hungry. Not the sort of thing you’ll find much application for in every day life. Instead, Madagascar just wants to make its audience laugh, and does that admirably.
If there’s any criticism to be leveled here, it’s that the plot is a little thin. To directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath’s credit though, it doesn’t try to stretch it. Madagascar gets in, throws its comedic punches and gets the heck out. There’s no real substantive adversity for the characters to overcome, no well developed villain for them to be pitted against. Had the movie gone on any longer, that might have killed it but clocking in at a meager 80 minutes the thing works.
There’s plenty here for everyone to enjoy, maybe even enough to redeem DreamWorks for Shark Tale. The lovable penguins you’ve no doubt already seen in the trailers absolutely run away with the movie, and if DreamWorks has any sense they’ll already be hard at work on an all penguin spin-off. The big named voice talent dragged in to give them advertising fodder does their job too, Stiller’s usual shtick disappears inside Alex and Chris Rock is much better as a voice actor than he is in live action. Madagascar is a gut busting little adventure that’s an easy view for parents afraid of a serious time commitment. It’s a prodigious comedic mix of smart gags on both adult and kiddie levels. Load up the SUV and come on in.