Directed by Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath. Voices by Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith, David Schwimmer, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter. (2005, PG, 86 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 27, 2005
If anybody bothered to ask movie critics, we’d tell you that the fastest way to solve the population problem is to expose those of childbearing years to a cartoon sneak preview, with its packed house of squirming, screaming little, er, angels. I mention this only to set my mood (cantankerous): That is to say, I was in no way prepared to like this film. The perfunctory opening scenes didn’t help: There’s Marty the Zebra (voiced by Rock), who is weary of pampering at the Central Park Zoo and lusting for a life in the wild. There’s his grab-bag of wisecracking best friends: the self-centered showman, Alex the Lion (Stiller); sassy hippo Gloria (Pinkett Smith); and glum hypochondriac Melman the Giraffe (Schwimmer). Gently amusing stuff, sure, but nothing terribly inspiring – that is, until a bookish primate makes a crack about throwing monkey poo at Tom Wolfe, and Madagascar dangles the possibility of being something slightly nutter. Consider that possibility mostly realized: After its leaden beginning, Madagascar launches into a lunatic pace of left-field pop-culture references and physics-defying physical comedy worthy of the Looney Tunes of yore. When Marty the Zebra hooks up with a quartet of penguins (the birdmen of this particular Alcatraz, they are plotting an escape to Antarctica), he too breaks out of the zoo and hoofs it to Grand Central Station, in order to catch a train for the wilds of … Connecticut. Like its jailbreak protagonists, the film grows more ambitious outside the confines of the zoo and truly takes off when the four best friends accidentally wash up on the shores of Madagascar and are stranded in a lemur country ruled by an idiot king (voiced by no less than Ali G, aka Sacha Baron Cohen). It’s a kick watching Lion, Zebra, Giraffe, and Hippo – city folk who fish bagels out of the trash and thrash in their sleep unless they are lulled by New York’s peculiar symphony of sirens and shoot-’em-ups – try to adapt to life in the wild. Smaller children, however, might be lightly terrorized when Alex the Lion’s carnivore instincts kick in with a junkie’s jittery fervor. In truth, Madagascar boasts a black comic bent that might not be entirely kid-friendly, as in a scene that works as a food-chain primer: See pretty chickadee; see pretty chickadee get crocodile-chomped; smirk to one’s self as Louis Armstrong warbles "What a Wonderful World" in the background. But it’s all so terrifically silly – in just the right ways – that the darker stuff probably won’t make a dent, anyway (nor will the cheeky asides to Chariots of Fire, Cast Away, and American Beauty). The somewhat-rote life lessons that cartoons – sorry, animated features – require are all in attendance (the importance of friendship, check; risk-taking, check) and somewhat gum up the fun, as does an overriding philosophy that doesn’t quite shake down, but maybe that’s just the crank in me coming out again. Forget life lessons: I much prefer a lemur king doing the robot.