The animation wars press on. The digital age has brought us some breathtaking and original films since Toy Story hit the scene in 1995, and virtually every year since we have been continually treated to digital theatrical wizardry that boggles the mind. Pixar used to own the market, but in recent years other studios have given the newfound genre a shot. Fox experienced success with 2002’s Ice Age and the recently released Robots, but it is DreamWorks that has really turned some heads in the past few years. We all knew DreamWorks was for real with the release of Shrek, but last year’s Shark Tale proved to be the most abysmal computer animation lovefest to date. Has DreamWorks recovered with Madagascar?
The answer is in a bit of a grey area. Madagascar harks back to the 1950’s cartoons with its exaggerated character facial expressions and frenetic action. Animating animals is nothing new, but adding the flare of a Roadrunner & Coyote episode seems like a breath of fresh air in the rapid expansion of technology. While it reminds us of the good old days in execution, there really isn’t much of a story or the daring, sometimes black, humor that DreamWorks has brought to the table in recent offerings.
Alex the Lion (Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Rock), Melman the Giraffe (Schwimmer), and Gloria the Hippo (Smith) are all happily in captivity at the Central Park Zoo. They spend their days entertaining wide-eyed children and enjoying the endless food supply that is given to them. Alex loves the showboating and attention, Marty is exceptionally outspoken, Melman is always on his last nerve (hence his extensive collection of plastic bottles), and Gloria is the referee of the group.
Also within the confines of the zoo is a group of scheming penguins. They want out, and have concocted a plan for escape. Marty gets wind of the plan, and soon he finds himself wanting out as well. He tells his friends, who promptly shrug it off. But Marty is not joking. After a run-in with the cops during Marty’s attempted escape, the group rapidly find themselves aboard a ship destined for Africa. Circumstances have their way, however, and the four end up in beautiful Madagascar. They must navigate the land and make friends with the resident lemurs (two of which are voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen and Cedric The Entertainer). Let the adventure begin!
Make no mistake about it, Madagascar is a jaw-dropping film to look at it. Lush colors, incredible locales, and phenomenal detail (have a look at that water!) dominate the frame throughout. It’s so wondrous, in fact, that the viewer almost spaces out regarding the story and characters. And that’s okay, because the story is not very engaging. The characters arrive at Madagascar, and, that’s about it. The rollicking action ends, almost as if screenwriters Mark Burton and Billy Frolick couldn’t come up with anything interesting for our heroes to do. The kids in the audience calmed down and the laughs became fewer and far between. What happened?
In the end, it is the penguins (voiced by the film’s creators rather than “A-list” talent) that run away with the show, and they are still criminally underused. Penguins always seem like they are scheming, and the film milks the New York talkin’ covert Antarctic dwellers to the max.
The voicings are good, but not terribly memorable. Chris Rock is clearly having a blast voicing Marty. He exudes excitement and comedy, and the youngsters ate it up. David Schwimmer also succeeds as paranoid Melman. He and Rex from Toy Story would get along well and could drive anyone bonkers. Jada Pinkett Smith is an interesting choice to voice a Hippo, but she comes across as a calming presence among the other three hyper animals. It is Ben Stiller who seems a bit lost and out of place. It seems like the character of Alex, who becomes more and more unhinged as the film goes on, demands a more gruffer, deeper voice.
Despite the film’s faults, it is still worth recommending as an early summer escape for the young ones. Adults will enjoy a few film references and trace innuendo humor. Is DreamWorks back on top of their game? Not completely, but this is a step in the right direction.
Length: 80 Minutes
Rating: PG for mild language, crude humor and some thematic elements.
Theatrical Release: May 27, 2005
Directed by: Eric Darnell & Tom McGrat
Written by: Mark Burton & Billy Frolick
Cast: Ben Stiller (voice), Chris Rock (voice), David Schwimmer (voice), Jada Pinkett Smith (voice), Sacha Baron Cohen (voice), Cedric the Entertainer (voice)