DreamWorks was quickly establishing its distinct identity in their CG films. Whereas Pixar’s library kept strong characters and emotional resonance at their forefront, DreamWorks was more… crass, relying on in-your-face slapstick, verbal humor and cultural references. Madagascar is indicative of all of these traits, an insane, wacky misadventure on fast-forward, where no real lessons are learned and everything remains manic and callous from start to finish. This is definitely not to say this is a bad thing, of course. There’s plenty I loved about Madagascar, but there’s also a fair share of things I don’t. What I’m most puzzled by is how this became a franchise, with the third film being released this year and a fourth and final (?) on its way. But we’ll get to those later.
The movie follows four animal currently living in the lap of luxury at the Central Park Zoo. Alex the lion is the star attraction, a real crowd-pleaser and a bundle of unbridled energy, Gloria the hippo is the matronly, but firm voice of reason, and Melman the giraffe is a worrywart hypochondriac. Last is Marty the zebra, who is not so content with his lot in life until he learns of the wild, an open and free place he never thought actually existed. He escapes to Grand Central Station to hitch a train out of town, but is stopped by his three friends. The whole thing turns into a fiasco, sparking animal rights protests and forcing the zoo to transfer the animals back to their natural habitat in Kenya. An incident on the ship carting them lands them all overboard, and they wash up on the sunny shores of Madagascar. There, they encounter a group of hedonistic lemurs, led by the pompous, eccentric King Julien, who allow them refuge with them in exchange for protection from their natural predators, the Foosa. After a bumpy start, things seem to be going fine for the four, at least until Alex’s natural hunting instincts kick in and his inner predator starts to become unleashed.
This entire movie is on overdrive, with every one of its characters filled with an incredible amount of kinetic energy, and the slapstick comes on thick and relentlessly. When it works, it really works, but I felt a lot of the time this movie was just way too fucking fast. The pratfalls and fast paced dialogue would end up just piling on each other with no breathing room, and lots of bits just felt manic for manic’s sake. Alex is a showman who craves the limelight, and as such he’s got more energy than he knows what to do with, so it sort of makes sense that his character is off the wall. But then again, I didn’t really get much else of who Alex is, and that’s one of the biggest flaws of the film: the four leads are really unremarkable. Gloria and Melman are prop characters: the former being the sassy token female voice of reason, and the latter a one-note source for medical jokes. Alex and Marty’s friendship is at the forefront of the movie, but I really don’t have a handle of either of their characters. I’ve mentioned a little bit on Alex, but who is Marty? A zebra who wants more in his life… that’s all I got. Through all of this scrapes and squabbles, I ultimately really cared nothing for these four, and that’s a sizable flaw in a film.
The standouts of the film are the supporting cast: the penguins and the lemurs. The penguins are clearly the breakout stars, with their own spin-off specials and TV shows, and for good reason. Their crazy subplot of escaping the zoo and highjacking the tanker ship is fantastic, and they tie into the main story quite well. Also a highlight is Sacha Baron Cohen as King Julien, an egotistical nutcase who has made himself the de facto leader of a motley crew of uninhibited lemurs. Between their scenes and some of the interactions between the lead characters, there’s certainly enough here to keep you entertained, and quite a few really creative flourishes. King Julien holds court in the wreckage of a crashed airplane in the wild, using the arm bone of the long deceased captain as his staff, which animates as his left hand as he speaks. The gang takes the subway to Grand Central Station to get Marty, and hilarity ensues. The penguins set sail for Antarctica, only to discover a cold, desolate wasteland isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (the silent cutaway caps off brilliantly when one penguin comments, “Well, this sucks.”) The visual style is also spectacular, going for more of an angular, caricatured style, and the animation featuring lots of spastic takes and quick knee jerk reactions. Even if some points feel like overload, the film really is a treat for the eyes.
The film is light-hearted at its core, so things feel slightly less genuine and more uncomfortable when we get to the climax involving Alex going native and attempting to eat and kill his friends. Roger Ebert did a review positing what would happen if the film were in more mature hands and Alex actually did eat Marty, and what would happen, and I’m quite curious of that myself. It’s not like I’m expecting anything truly serious in a movie like this, which is why this plot turn feels very clumsy. The stakes are raised so high, then absolved immediately when Alex puts on his show for the Foosa and scares them off. I wasn’t expecting any different, nor would it feel right if they treated it any other way, so I guess ultimately it feels like this plot turn felt completely out of place. Maybe it could have been handled better, but I don’t know.
Despite my issues with it, I’d say Madagascar is a success. Considering the at that point push for CG to be more and more realistic, the more stylized look of the film alone is worth the price of admission, as well as its more cartoony animation. The supporting cast brings the movie to life around the dull, rudimentary leads. The plot is kind of aimless and messy, but in the end, this movie really isn’t about the story, it’s more of shutting your brain off and taking in this pure kinetic and insane exercise, and for that, it’s definitely worth a watch.