Thursday, June 16, 2005

Madagascar / ***½ (PG)

Featuring the voices of:
Alex the Lion: Ben Stiller
Marty the Zebra: Chris Rock
Melman the Giraffe: David Schwimmer
Gloria the Hippo: Jada Pinkett Smith
Julian: Sacha Baron Cohen
Maurice: Cedric the Entertainer
Mort: Andy Richter

DreamWorks Animation presents a film directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath. Written by Mark Burton and Billy Frolick. Running time: 80 minutes. Rated PG (for mild language, crude humor and some thematic elements).

For the past few days my son has been walking around the house singing the words “I like to move it, move it. I like to move it, move it. I like to… MOVE IT!” I asked him what he was singing, and he said it was the Madagascar song. Some people might recognize those lyrics as belonging to a popular club song from a few years ago; those simple lyrics are about all there is to the words, which are backed up by a driving dance beat. Well, the filmmakers behind Madagascar have given the rather vaporous song new life for the kids and even adults who go to see the simple but wonderfully charming and fun new animated feature from DreamWorks.

The lyrics above make up just about the entirety of the words to the song and the film is not much more complex, but it is a hell of a fun time. Marty (voiced by Chris Rock, The Longest Yard) is a Zebra in the Central Park Zoo in New York City. Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller, Meet the Fockers) is his best friend, a lion who is the star attraction of the zoo, knows it and loves the attention. He is also neighbored by an empowered hippo named Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith, The Matrix Revolutions) and a neurotic hypochondriac giraffe named Melman (David Schwimmer, TV’s Friends).

Marty dreams of the freedom of the wild, while his friends try to convince him how wonderful they have it with the cushy zoo life. One day the penguins of the park miscalculate in their breakout attempt and end up digging into Marty’s pen. The penguins are one of the film’s many treasures with their diabolical determination. It is as if they don’t even really care to be free so much as they just can’t help but scheme and make trouble. Anyway, the penguins plant a seed in Marty’s head and soon he is walking down the streets of Manhattan getting his first taste of freedom. His three friends go after him and when the authorities catch up to them in Grand Central Station it is assumed that they have all gone feral and they are boxed up and shipped off to a wildlife refuge. Meanwhile the penguins stow away on the ship and highjack it. During the exchange of control, the four animals’ boxes are lost overboard and wash up on the shores of Madagascar.

Melman’s germ phobic giraffe threatens to steal the show on several occasions. Whether visually as when he is stumbling through a Manhattan subway car with tissue boxes on his feet, or vocally with Schwimmer’s pitch perfect neurosis ridden delivery; Melman’s laughs are the biggest and most consistent of the cast. Why Woody Allen hasn’t tapped Schwimmer to play one of his nervy neurotic comedic heroes yet is a mystery.

There are several scene-stealers in this movie. The zoo provides Melman and the penguins, whose subplot of hijacking the ship to Antarctica is followed through in conjunction with the main characters’ adventure in Madagascar. It is on that jungle continent where our heroes stumble upon the most blatant scene-stealers of the group, the lemurs. Specifically King Julian (Sacha Baron Cohen, Ali G of HBO’s Da Ali G Show) is the only scene-stealer who is aware that this is what he is. This character loves the spotlight and works to keep it focused on himself at all times. Since his governing skills leave something to be desired, it can be assumed the only reason he is king is for this purpose. The lemur culture here is presented as one that only exists to par-tay, so they don’t mind their king’s self-serving ideals. It is King Julian who sings the house anthem “I like to move it,” and for the first time I found this clubbing mindset charming in these lemurs.

I also appreciated that the plot didn’t run down the typical fish out of water stream of the cultured outsiders learning how to live from the primitives and those noble savages learning how to make life better from the outsiders. Yes the outsiders learned to loosen up a bit, but this was not the point of their story. Their story focuses much more on the friendship between Marty the Zebra and Alex the Lion. Marty wanted the freedom of the wild, but it is Alex whose wild nature blossoms in the jungle; and as his instinctive predatory nature slowly sets in, it threatens to destroy their friendship. Not in some schmaltzy emotional way, but because Alex wants to eat his friend. “Why are you biting my butt?” “I’m not biting your butt.” “Those aren’t your teeth in my butt?”

Unlike most modern American studio animation, this movie doesn’t strive to reach some broad demographic by adding depth or deluging the adult audience with pop culture humor. There are a few jokes involving Planet of the Apes references and the like when the crew first arrives on the shore of Madagascar, but it doesn’t stuff the movie so full of in-jokes that this becomes the movie’s purpose, as in Shrek 2. Mostly it is just a bunch of animated animals having a hell of a lot of fun, and that translates into a lot of fun to watch.

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