Predicated on the slenderest of plots, the new film Madagascar still manages to be lively and clever, an entertaining film for kids, even as it pleases adults with witty lines at the expense of Tom Wolfe and San Diego.
While the animation will not be competing for any awards, the Central Park Zoo, home of the main characters, is very nicely rendered. The main characters are Alex (Ben Stiller), the lion and central drawing card at the zoo, Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the hypochondriac giraffe (voiced ably by David Schwimmer in a spot that might have been even better suited to David Hyde Pierce), and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith).
Longing for the open spaces of the wild and frustrated that he cannot compete for attention with the lion, Marty wants out of the zoo. Trying to convince him that the New York is the only place to live, the animals make various arguments. Alex gazes at the sky and observes, “Look, even the star is out.” But the lone visible star turns out to be a helicopter. Speculating on where they might go, one of the animals proposes Connecticut, to which another responds, “What would Connecticut have to offer us? Lyme disease?”
When he encounters the mafia-like penguins, by far the most humorous creatures in the film, trying to break out of the zoo, Marty decides to act. He takes off for Grand Central Station, where his friends pursue him once they discover his absence. The penguins, too, end up at the train station, where they are all captured, boxed, and herded onto a boat headed for Africa. The penguins manage to take over the boat and steer it toward Antarctica. Marty and his buddies are accidentally dumped into the sea and land on Madagascar island, which they mistake for San Diego, a natural land of artificially constructed beauty.
The foursome soon encounters a group of Lemurs, who call their mysterious visitors the “New York Giants.” Even though he is the king of his new land, the lion reacts to being taken out of New York the way Woody Allen might. Moping and desolate, he sits on the beach in front a large sign “HELP,” part of which collapses to form a new word, “HELL.” Suffering withdrawal from his daily allotment of steaks, the lion goes from depressed to ravenous, as every animal he sees suddenly transforms into a juicy steak.
Although the ending is straight out of Disneyland with all the animals turning into pacific, fish-eating creatures, the film does have some fun with naïve notions of animal amiability. At one point, the soundtrack plays “What a Wonderful World” as the camera delivers scenes of animal brutality from across the island.
If mine are any indication, young children will be captivated. As with many so-called family movies, the writers deliver jokes especially designed to keep the parents interested. In many films, this involves barely concealed salacious humor, something I at least can do without, especially while sitting with my six-year-old. Happily that is not the case in Madagascar, a diverting summer film for the whole family.