by KC and Johanna Carlson
We were at something of a disadvantage watching this cartoon, since we hadn’t seen the first movie. There is an attempt to recap the events of that film, but the sequence was choppy, coming after a new prologue. We found it easier to follow once we read up on the plot of the previous. (Which sounds awfully complicated for a family film, not to mention the odd take on predation.)
In the prologue, Alex the lion cub is captured off a wildlife preserve in Africa. Daddy lion chases the poachers and gets shot in a pretty intense scene that’s a distinct change of mood from the happy family playfulness that preceded it. Alex winds up in New York City. (The skyline still includes the twin towers, because it’s 1972. We’re not sure why it was important to make Alex 30-some years old, since lions only live to the mid-20s in captivity and die even earlier in the wild. This bugged me throughout the movie, especially once the different generations were brought to the foreground.) The cub liked dancing more than fighting, so he became quite an entertainer, and then comes the events of the first film, which gets our cast to Madagascar.
Ben Stiller is Alex the lion; Chris Rock is Marty the zebra; David Schwimmer is Melman the hypochondriac giraffe; and Jada Pinkett Smith is Gloria the hippo. The characters are attractive and interesting to look at, but the designs seem more angular than they need to be. They’re well-animated, but they don’t fit into their environments quite as well as I’d like. And the twig-like legs of the zebra and giraffe would never hold their weight.
So, anyway, the animals are trying to launch a rebuilt plane using a giant slingshot in order to … we don’t know where they’re trying to go, actually. Back to New York, we guessed. The animals crash-land in Africa, where they meet Alex’s dad, since it’s not too big a coincidence that they wind up at the exact same preserve, given an entire continent.
Too Much Going On
We found it confusing how much is going on in this movie. Each of the four leads gets their own storyline: Alex loses a battle with another lion. Melman becomes the giraffe witch doctor, until the others convince him he’s got some dreaded disease. Marty discovers the lack of individuality in being a herd animal. Only Gloria is having a good time, dating a huge hippo. Oh, and we haven’t mentioned Alex Baldwin as an evil lion; the character even looks like him, with his mannerisms. He’s done well.
Then there are the lemurs, which ride ostriches and lead flocks of flamingos. The king is voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen, whom we don’t like anyway, and there’s just too much showing off by him here. We were also disturbed by the way Melman was drawn with what looked like a broken neck, just to get his head into frame. Thanks to the computers driving this film, it’s easy to make thousands of copies of each of the animals, which is both cool and creepy.
For us, the penguins stole the show. They’re the wacky bringers of trouble, and their designs are simpler in their blocks of color. The leader sounds like Shatner in phrasing (voiced by Tom McGrath, director). We didn’t realize they were supposed to be military commandos, but that explains a lot. Like the way they steal several safari jeeps for parts and use monkeys as their thumbs to rebuild the plane.
Some of the set pieces look astounding, as in the volcano sequence, but then along comes something ridiculous, like the lion dance-off. Everyone involved with the film seems to be trying a little too hard. The movie has to be funny every moment for fear of losing the audience’s attention, which we found overwhelming. It’s over-caffeinated and very exaggerated.
Plenty of Pop Cult
The movie rewards knowledge of popular culture, but if you’re not familiar with the references, you may be lost or miss some jokes. Also, simply referring to something in an unexpected context, like a lion doing a West Side Story dance move, doesn’t mean that reference is automatically funny. The film doesn’t trust itself to rely on its own characters and concepts, using pop hits and too many allusions as a crutch. (You’ll have that “I Like to Move It” song stuck in your head for days after.) We didn’t feel much of anything for the main characters until the end, because until then, it was just a wall of jokes. When they stop being frenetic and start developing the characters, the movie greatly improves.
For characters who have a love of dance, I found it difficult to see how the lion and the hippos, especially, were moving. Their characters aren’t designed to show that motion effectively. In Alex’s case, it’s because his head is too large — that’s the only thing that catches your attention, and it moves very little.
The end of the movie sets up for the upcoming 2012 sequel in which the animals try to finally get back to New York. Personally, of the Dreamworks Animation cartoons, we prefer Kung Fu Panda because it de-emphasizes the pop culture checks in favor of a meaningful story. But you likely don’t need us to tell you whether you want this or not — if you’ve got kids who liked the goofy animal behavior of the first one, you’ve already made up your mind.
The special features include:
Commentary by directors/co-writers Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath with two producers.
A 10-minute featurette on the voice cast, showing everyone recording their lines. It looks like a promotional reel done for the movie. (We prefer features done for the DVD, since they aren’t so pushy about the marketing.)
A 10-minute making of, with scenery captured from a safari trip to Africa. Producers, directors, and technical and effects workers talk about the challenge of capturing the grasses and dust and the herds of animals.
An examination of the crash landing sequence, including the storyboards. I found it odd to see the animators acting out the scenes while others filmed them, so they’d get a good idea of the motion, but KC says that’s common.
More footage from the filmmakers’ trip to Africa.
Swahili Speak: Clips from the movie with English and Swahili terms overlaid.
A game in which you pick the right pieces to repair the penguins’ plane.
Four music videos plus clips of songs from other DreamWorks animated films.
The Penguins of Madagascar
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
The Penguins of Madagascar
(Widescreen)Buy this DVD
Only available in a two-pack is the 24-minute The Penguins of Madagascar. (Strangely, the full-screen edition is $3 cheaper than the widescreen right now on Amazon.) This disk contains two cartoons promoting the Nickelodeon series of the same title coming in March. If that’s the structure of an episode, we’d recommend instead of doing two longer cartoons, three shorter cartoons would keep the attention better. We like shorter and punchier.
I would like this series much more if the King Lemur wasn’t in it, although I found the penguin as popcorn bazooka dementedly funny. The only original voices to come over are the lead penguin, Skipper, and Andy Richter as tiny lemur Mort, although the replacement talent is experienced in the field.
There are some special features tying in with the movie, like Animal Planet-style nature footage of lions, a visit to the Bronx Zoo’s Madagascar exhibit, a PC-only video game demo you have to run from your computer, and instructions on Alex’s dance movies. Also, the screen where you select the cartoons has some Easter eggs, short bumpers with the characters. You can also send penguin greetings from Air-Penguin.com.
(A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the studio.)