Before getting down to the specifics of this inoffensive but thoroughly inessential offering from Dreamworks Animation, I want to make an open plea to filmmakers everywhere: Let’s lay off the Chariots of Fire parodies and quit slapping Louis Armstrong’s recording of “What a Wonderful World” on soundtracks. The first is just no longer funny (if it ever was), and the second … well, look, there’s a huge catalogue of Armstrong recordings — pick on something else for a change. Why not “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You” or even “Sweethearts on Parade” or “Cake Walking Babies from Home”?
Actually, this plea isn’t really beside the point, since these are exactly the sort of problems that keep Madagascar from being the very thing it wants to be: namely, another Shrek. Unfortunately, this movie seems to have been made by people who completely misunderstood the anarchy that made the two Shrek movies work. Hell, they don’t even understand the difference between throwaway pop culture references and ones that are so torturously worked into the proceedings that they might as well be festooned with superimposed titles announcing their presence.
The gap between an offhand reference to a bush “shaped like Shirley Bassey” in Shrek 2 and a (quite literally) in-your-face reference to a Twilight Zone episode in Madagascar is a lot greater than it might seem. Yes, both are esoteric and almost certainly mean nothing to either the kids in the audience or even their parents (I hate to say it, but we’re getting into grandparent range here). However, the joke in Shrek 2 is just an aside in an almost nonstop barrage of gags, not the big gag in the scene. Similarly, a great Madagascar gag about Tom Wolfe giving a lecture at Lincoln Center is just too much a showcase moment, and it feels like a sop to the more sophisticated viewers (while also proving how literate the screenwriters must be).
The movie is on surer footing when it tosses in a quick Zoolander reference by having Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) strike the patented Derek Zoolander pose for the zoo patrons snapping his picture. The trick is that this really is a throwaway moment. (The Shrek movies also have the wit to poke fun at their own pop culture references: When a trumpeter breaks into the Hawaii Five-O theme in Shrek 2, there’s someone just waiting to smack him in the head and tell him to knock it off.)
The film also errs in trying to turn Alex and Marty (Chris Rock) into Shrek (Mike Myers) and Donkey (Eddie Murphy). The entire Shrek/Donkey relationship is based on a grudging friendship that’s always undermined by Donkey’s status as “annoying talking animal.” Alex and Marty, on the other hand, are best buddies from the onset, so the film has to set up a falling out for them. And while this might work on its own, the movie has no idea what do with the concept. As a result, they merely chase each other around for a few minutes. It’s pretty flat stuff.
The whole film feels a little stale. The story line about zoo animals who must cope with being in the wild is more promising than anything the movie actually delivers, except in fits and spurts. Sacha Baron Cohen’s (Ali G in Da House) Lemur king is a nicely manic creation, and his skeptical sidekick (Cedric the Entertainer) isn’t bad. Plus, the film gets some pretty good simian value out of the two monkeys, and the “psychotic” penguins are a welcome addition. In fact, the lead penguin (voiced by co-director Tom McGrath), who’s prone to calling Marty his “monochromatic friend,” is a better character than any of the star parts.
But the film is never more than OK. True, it’s more cohesive than Shark Tale (the last attempt at a new Shrek franchise), but, messy as that film was, at least it had some edge, if only in its subtext as a “coming out” story. Madagascar just has no bite — at least none beyond the moment when a “reverted” Alex bloodlessly clamps his choppers into Marty’s backside — and offers only mild amusement. Rated PG for mild language, crude humor and some thematic elements.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke