Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 05/27/05 14:09:23

"Lions and Zebras and Hippos, Oh My Does It Suck"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

With all the pro-animal groups and classically moralistic lessons in pet cinema, never did I ever expect to see a film to take the bold approach of suggesting that animals are better off in captivity than they are in the wild. This may be true for certain species, particularly those of the endangered variety, but try selling that to critics of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo which seems to lose animals at the frequency of the next scheduled daily news report. I’m not about to take any high ground for one stance or the other since it’s the least of Madagascar’s problems. I thought I had seen the bottom with last year’s celebrity-voice driven and uninspired Shark Tale. Dreamworks Animation has managed to one-down themselves with an even flatter and weaker piece of family entertainment.

Marty the Zebra (voiced by Chris Rock) believes there’s a greater life for him outside the walls of the Central Park Zoo. Basically he’s bored and has reached a literal mid-life crisis. His best friend, Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller) is the star attraction of the zoo and enjoys the daily steak platters he’s served. What in the wild could possibly be more appealing?

Marty does manage to escape although the details of which, could have been fun, are left to our own imagination. I suppose somebody watching it should have one. In the rescue attempt by Alex and pals, Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and hypochondriac Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer), the animals are captured and shipped off only to be cast off due to some rascally penguins. The four friends wash up on the shore of an island populated mainly by a colony of lemurs led by Julian (Ali G’s Sacha Baron Cohen providing a few needed chuckles) and Maurice (the worn-out-his-welcome Cedric the Entertainer) who’s welcoming committee dancing to Shaggy’s “I like to move it move it” is even more embarrassing than the dated “Livin La Vida Loca” number at the end of Shrek 2.

What’s shocking and, frankly, off-putting about Madagascar is how unappealing its heroes actually are. Chris Rock is desperately trying to pull off his mentor's (Eddie Murphy) feat in the Shrek movies as the fast-talking, uber-hip shizzle-fizzle quadraped, but is as painfully unfunny as any of the human characters he plays. Stiller’s Lion moves with all the grace of a perpetual jump cut, even if his hair is perfect. The conceit that the animals have their own language and can only be heard by humans in the growls and grunts we’re familiar with is an old notion. But we accept it unconditionally since it doesn’t seem far-fetched. But it fails when the animals don’t behave like they would in front of the thousands of zoo patrons. Lions going into posing mode and zebras and hippos walking on their hind legs explode the illusion into a thousand pieces. Suspension of disbelief aside, think about the worlds of Toy Story and Finding Nemo and how we were able to sustain the simplest of story points without blinking and able to concentrate instead on the characters and their adventures.

This is not the world of fairy tales and there should be graver circumstances, if not more imaginative. The central conflict for them doesn’t even manifest until well into the second act. There are no humans to contend with. The villains should be a walk in the park for any lion, no matter how preening. And Alex’s internal conflict with coming out of the closet as a wild beast and not a show pony is accentuated with jokes of licking and butt-biting. Many of the tell-tale jokes designed to cater to adult audiences, including lame-o references to Cast Away and Planet of the Apes, will produce more groans than knowing smiles. But when all else fails, you can always kick the lion in the crotch again. Three times by my count.

Despite it being a pretty fluently laughless trek for 85 minutes, there is a bright spot that keeps it from being a total shipwreck. Aside from a promising signing monkey and his translator, who are so forgotten about their final lines can’t even be heard in the background, those rascally penguins mentioned take over the movie whenever they are on screen, which is for a total of about 12 minutes. Andy Richter provides a hysterical turn as the leader Mort and induces a spark of life and seditiousness in every reading. Filmmakers Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath should have taken a cue from Disney’s Emperor’s New Groove which shut down and retooled itself once it discovered what worked. Mort and his gang of penguins are clearly the stars of this film and it’s hard not to applaud their every appearance. In its current state, Madagascar is very much like the birds’ trip to their native Antarctica. There they are, the only bits of color in an otherwise dead white and cold landscape, looking around at each other until one of them finally utters, “Well, this sucks.”

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