Actually a very good film. For kids.
Employees of the animation arm of Dreamworks must curse Pixar daily. Always portrayed as the also rans to the all-conquering Lasseter boys, there's still umpteen production companies that would give their eye teeth to make movies half as funny or half as profitable as theirs but because Shark Tale wasn't up to the same stratospheric standard as the Shrek outings they become 'the CG animation company with the patchy track record'. Everyone seems to forget that Pixar's had much the same number of slightly duff films in the shape of A Bug's Life. Although Dreamworks' Antz wasn't that great, come to think of it. The point of this wittering, as far as these things go, is to say that their latest outing Madagascar didn't have quite the same level of expectations attached to it, and the slew of poor notices didn't help matters any. To the vast surprise of no-one, everyone's wrong. Again.
The thought occurs that if everyone stopped thinking of the films as items in some CG arms race they might actually enjoy them a little more, and while there's truth in the accusation that this doesn't reach the giddy heights of Pixar's outings of late, it's still an enjoyable romp that will definitely keep the kids amused. The New York, Central Park Zoo life seems to suit Alex the Lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and hypochondriac Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer, channeling Woody Allen) well enough, however Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock) has something of a hankering for breaking out of the daily grind and going something, oooh, wild. Like, say, Connecticut.
Catching wind of the Penguin escape committee's tunneling operation, Marty's soon busted out of animal choky and wandering around downtown Noo Yawk looking for a cross country train. Worried, his friends track him down to entice him away from the horrible, horrible freedom. Interpreting this as a deep rooted desire to be returned to their natural home, our animal chums are boxed up and shipped off in the general direction of Africa. Even the penguins.
Apparently the only ones realising the folly of sending penguins to Africa, the penguin military unit headed by Skipper (co-director Tom McGrath on double duty), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico and Private (Christopher Knights) implement a regime change, pointing the ship in the general direction of Antarctica after a piece of computer hacking approximately fifty time more realistic than that seen in Swordfish, despite being carried out by a CG penguin. As an unfortunate side effect of this activity, the crates containing Andy, Gloria, Melman and Marty are flung overboard, washing up on (where else?) Madagascar.
While the gang apart from Marty initially despair at this turn of events, spirits are lifted when the local colony of lemurs and their hyperactive, Mad Stuntmen singing (why? Dear God, why?) King Julian (Sacha Baron Cohen, perhaps better known as Ali G, innit) buddy up to them with the not entirely altruistic aim of using Alex's fearsome roar to ward away the hyenas that rudely keep eating them. Of course, when parted from his usual diet of silver service steaks, it's not long before Alex gets a hankering for some red meat himself, at which point the film runs out of ideas and rather disappointingly peters out.
Madagascar has its oddities. There's a near complete lack of plot development once the animals hit the beach of Madagascar, essentially developing into something a little more character based as Andy tries to, well, stop himself from eating his friends. It turns into something primarily concerned with personality, survival and friendship with no real ultimate goal in mind. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but one wonders how well it plays with the kiddywinks. There's no bad guy to be stopped, no errant, wandering son to be rescued, no obvious conclusions to be had. For the adults in the audience this tends to give Madagascar something of an unsatisfying, aimless final reel, but whether the slightly younger than usual target audience that this flick is primarily aimed at will notice or care about is an entirely different matter.
Which is a pity, as it does feel like there's not enough of a common thread pulling together some very funny scenes. While the entirety of it will certainly keep the kids happy, there's only the odd moments that adults amongst the audience can truly chuckle along with. With the few now obligatory references to films the kiddywinks will be bemused by (Planet of the Apes, Castaway and American Beauty with chops rather than rose petals, bizarrely) out of the way, most of the memorable lines and moments come from those psychotic, all-action, commando penguins who are worth the price of admission alone. Also hugely worthy of mention are the criminally underused chimpanzees Phil (who can't speak, but can read and sign) and Mason (Conrad Vernon), who gets perhaps the best line of the night on their initial breakout with "I hear Tom Wolfe's speaking at Lincoln Center. (Phil frantically signs something) Well, of course we're going to throw poo at him!". The marquee stars don't bring a great deal to turn out to be fairly generic characters, Jada Pinkett Smith's Gloria seeming very much a third wheel and Schwimmer's scripted whining growing ever more grating. It's largely the Rock and Stiller show, but perhaps unsurprisingly in light of the U certification both seem somewhat neutered over their usual selves.
At least they're enthusiastic, which drives the film along well enough when the plot doesn't to save it from being an unmitigated disaster. Frustratingly the one vocal performance that from the trailer would seem to be the worst turns out to the about the best, Sacha Baron Cohen bringing just the right amount of manic energy at times when the film really needs it. Sadly for any older members of the audience there's just not enough genuinely funny moments to forgive it's slender plotting.
I'm conflicted. I rather liked this film, certainly far more than I'd expected to. But then again, it doesn't really matter all that much if I like it or not, because this wasn't made with 25 year old curmudgeons in mind. It's a kids film, and in that respect it's an unqualified success. If you don't happen to have any kids to amuse, there's little reason to seek this out and feel free to knock a snowflake or two off this mark.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.
Chris Rock (Marty)
David Schwimmer (Melman)
Jada Pinkett Smith (Gloria)
Sacha Baron Cohen (King Julien)
Cedric the Entertainer (Maurice)
Andy Richter (Mort)
Tom McGrath (Skipper)
Christopher Knights (Private)
Chris Miller (Kowalski)
Conrad Vernon (Mason)