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Madagascar (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 27 May 2005
And here comes yet another CGI animated feature; DreamWorks is turning them out faster than Disney, or anyone else, ever turned out traditionally-animated features. It’s therefore not surprising that not all of them are top-notch, and “Madagascar” is a touch below last year’s “Shark Tale.”

It’s a pleasant enough movie with very attractive production design by Kendal Cronkhite-Shaindlin; the principal designer of the characters is Craig Kellman. The four animal leads all resemble attractive toys—and of course, they ARE attractive toys now on sale across the country. Ben Stiller and Chris Rock provide highly personable voices for the leads, best friends Alex the lion and Marty the zebra. The other two are hippopotamus Gloria (Jada Pinkett-Smith) and Melman the hypochondriacal giraffe (David Schwimmer).

But it’s also slackly paced with a storyline that’s thin to the vanishing point. Four pampered Manhattan zoo animals end up in Madagascar, completely unprepared for life in the wild. This is not merely the premise; this is the entire story. Very little actually happens; hardly anyone learns a damned thing, except maybe Alex the lion.

He’s the big star of the strange zoo that seems to exist in a corner of Central Park. There are essentially no bars, and the only other animals are a quartet of scheming penguins and a couple of monkeys. Every few hours, the four friends strut their stuff, then are fed. Alex loves the steaks he’s treated to, but never has any reason to wonder where they come from—or what they are made of.

Marty has a bit of wanderlust; he’s curious as to what goes on out there in the big world. As the four friends celebrate Marty’s tenth birthday, he reaches a decision. In the morning, Alex, Gloria and Melman are shocked to discover Marty gone. (He’s headed for Grand Central Station hoping to take a train to Connecticut.) In retrieving him, the animals innocently create pandemonium and authorities ship them to Africa.

Aboard the ship, however, the scheming penguins—who act like a cross between Mafiosa and secret agents—take control of the ship. The crates with the four friends fall overboard and wash ashore in Madagascar, while the ship, now commanded by the penguins, heads on to Antarctica. The zoo animals are shocked to discover where they’ve wound up, with Alex sure it’s far-off, exotic San Diego. And, he asks, “what could be worse than San Diego?”
Alex and the others are surprised to encounter a tribe of furry creatures and a few chameleons led by King Julien VI, Emperor of the Lemurs (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his lieutenant Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer). Julien is convinced the newcomers are there to seize their women and precious metals, but soon regards them as giant sissies from New York. Julien hopes the newcomers can be persuaded to protect them from the Foosas, an unidentifiable horde of carnivores. (They vaguely resemble real animals called fossas.)

Not much happens for a while. Marty, Gloria and Melman set up their own encampment, and are eventually joined by Alex—who’s starting to get hungry. And he’s starting to realize where all those delicious steaks came from….

“Madagascar” abruptly takes a surprisingly serious—but very brief—turn as Alex struggles to overcome his growing impulse to kill and eat his best friends, starting with Marty. This provides a little spice toward the end of “Madagascar,” but it seems almost like an apology for not having provided enough fun and/or tension until then.

Although it’s CG, the movie is largely animated in what’s often called the Snappity-Pop Style: the characters strike extreme poses, then in a flurry of motion, change quickly to another extreme pose. This is often done in action scenes; in “Madagascar,” directors Eric Darnell (“Antz”) and Tom McGrath employ it even in dialogue scenes. After a while, the movie becomes almost exhausting to watch as you wish things would just slow down long enough to get a good look at the characters.

Alex is the best-looking of the characters, though his forepaws are larger than they should be; Stiller gives him an upbeat, effervescent personality allayed a bit by some stupidity. The head of Marty the zebra is over-designed—it’s so slender that expressions are not easily rendered, although Chris Rock is on the money with the voice. The other two leading characters are weakly conceived and under-used; the filmmakers seem terrified of resorting to fat jokes for Gloria the hippo—which leaves her stranded without any clear personality or purpose. At least Melman has some plaintive wisecracks.

If you don’t know anything about the real island of Madagascar, off the East Coast of Africa, don’t worry about it—from the evidence on screen all the filmmakers seem to know is that Madagascar is the home of (a) lemurs and (b) chameleons. But the lemurs here don’t act or look much like lemurs (which come in an alarmingly wide array of models) or chameleons (those here don’t even change color). Instead, “Madagascar” is treated pretty much like Zanzibar, Morocco, Rio, etc. were treated by Hope and Crosby: just a name on which to hang a few exotic-place gags.

The filmmakers show a lot of imagination in the design, but not much in the writing. The biggest jokes are yoked to song references: Marty strutting down the street like Travolta to “Stayin’ Alive,” a vast field with Alex and Marty frolicking is accompanied by “Born Free,” vernal beauty to the sound of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” and Reel2Reel’s bouncy “I Like to Move It, Move It” get used a lot, including over the amusing end credits. Even the “Chariots of Fire” theme is trotted out once again.

The story of “Madagascar” isn’t organic, it’s contrived from the word go. The characters don’t change the situation, they are controlled by the situation, and never really come alive in a way that the audience can identify with them. Some of the kids in the preview audience became restive and their attention wandered. Oh, it’s cute and charming and harmless enough, and I’m sure it will do reasonably well in theaters and have a long home video life, but is this really what this technology should be used for?

The shelves of bookstores and libraries groan with the weight of wonderful children’s books, classics and contemporary works, that have not been filmed and yet could be. Where’s Edward Eager’s “Half Magic”? Where are Robert Lawson’s “Rabbit Hill” or “Mr. Twigg’s Mistake”? Where’s anything by Daniel Manus Pinkwater? This stuff is highly suitable for filming, with lively, involving plots—but instead DreamWorks turns out these labored, routine-but-flashy products like “Shark Tale” and “Madagascar.” They should know better—their own “Shrek” was based on a popular children’s book. What are they waiting for?

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