What hath SHREK wrought? When DreamWorks SKG decided to move into the growing field of
animated films, one of the first was the terrifically enjoyable adaptation of William Steig’s modern fairy tale.
By dotting the story with modern-day allusions, pop songs and lovable characters voiced by well-known
actors, the studio established its blueprint for success. SHREK received the first Academy Award as the best
animated feature film which only served as icing on the cake. But subsequent movies from the studio
have proven a mixed bag. Whereas its main competitor Pixar continues to push the envelope technologically,
DreamWorks has settled into a routine. (Disney has all but abdicated the market in computer-generated
animations, at least for the moment, preferring to release films they’ve picked up from other sources.) So
where does that leave the audience? Well, since there are so few films targeted for the whole family, each studio
stands to earn big bucks. As far as artistic quality, well, that’s another matter.
I have to admit that the commercials and trailers for DreamWorks’ latest, MADAGASCAR, caught my
attention. That’s partly because the promotional material features a quartet of penguins that were quite appealing
to my sensibilities. Unfortunately, they are merely supporting players in the piece. The main story revolves around
a zebra named Marty (voiced by Chris Rock) who dreams of one day visiting “the wild.” In his imagination, “the
wild” is a verdant place where he can romp to the strains of “Born Free,” among other things. Instead, Marty
has to make do living in Manhattan’s Central Park Zoo. He’s by no means the star attraction either. That honor
goes to the lion Alex (Ben Stiller), who preens and poses, gives off a roar and is rewarded with steaks. Alex is
he undisputed King of the zoo. He’s also Marty’s best friend, never mind that in reality Alex would be pursuing
Marty as lunch or dinner. Rounding out the quartet of buddies is the hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) and the
hypochondriac giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer).
Now about those penguins … it seems they are planning to break free and escape to their natural habitat in
Antarctica. When they mistakenly tunnel into Marty’s pen, he gets the idea to break out as well and head to …
Connecticut. By train. So one night, he disappears from the zoo and struts down Fifth Avenue heading for
Grand Central Station. Since it’s New York City, the joke is that no one really notices a zebra walking the streets.
Okay, a few people gives Marty strange looks, but they MUST be tourists.
Marty’s flight has been noted by Melman who alerts Alex and Gloria and they head on out in pursuit of their
friend. Rather than walk the streets, the lion, hippo, and giraffe take a subway. Eventually they (along with the
renegade penguins and a pair of monkeys) are caught, shot up with tranquilizers and shipped off to a game reserve
in Kenya. En route, the penguins break free and hijack the ship to Antarctica, in the process causing the crates
containing the four “stars” to fall overboard and wash up on the shores of the titular island.
Once on Madagascar, the four friends encounter a tribe of lemurs whose king (Sascha Cohen Baron, a.k.a.
Ali G) welcomes them because Alex scares away their mortal enemies the foosa (a sort of mongoose), but his
right-hand lemur (Cedric the Entertainer) has his doubts about the interlopers. When Alex starts to turn “wild”
(that is, he starts to view all of the animals around him as steaks), some mild complications ensue until the film
reaches its requisite happy ending. Although to be honest, the movie doesn’t so much end as peter out, as if the
writers and directors just ran out of good ideas.
The animation is well done, with New York City rendered in exquisite detail, whether the Central Park Zoo,
the subway system or Grand Central Station. The transitional voyage to the island off Africa that gives the film
its title is handled amusingly, and the eye-popping vistas and visuals of Madagascar are enjoyable.
The screenplay strives to entertain kids and adults alike. Small fries may not get the references to
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, CHARIOTS OF FIRE or the original PLANET OF THE APES, but
moms and dads might. But … for my money, something was missing.
I guess in truth I’m something of a purist, having grown up with Looney Tunes and Walt Disney. I’d still
much prefer to watch a two-dimensional rendering of Bugs Bunny or Belle or Simba than any of these
three-dimensional characters created by machine. I am aware this is a generational thing; youngsters today
are growing up with these new figures which will probably look quaint to their children twenty years hence.
The message of MADAGASCAR is one of the importance of friendship and the need to accept those
different from us is obviously a worthwhile one for kids to learn. If it takes computer generated animals to teach
it, I guess that’s a good thing. I just wish such an important message was wrapped in better packaging.
MPAA rating: PG for mild language, crude humor and
some thematic elements
Running time: 86 mins.
Viewed at the Loews Lincoln Square
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.