Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/21/05 11:54:19

"You've got to love a lion who doesn't know what it means to be a lion."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

For some reason, the folks who make movies for kids seem to think they need a bunch of secondary characters. The cynical will claim that this is done for the sole purpose of selling more tie-in merchandise, and they've probably got a point. There's no particular need for the hippo or the giraffe in Madagascar, for instance, and neither likely will be anybody's favorite character, but neither actually takes anything away from the movie, which winds up pretty entertaining as a whole.

I won't lie and say it's as good as some of DreamWorks' previous animated features. It's closer in tone to the likes of SharkTale than Antz; the early indications that DreamWorks would grow into a more sophisticated, adult-oriented animation studio have pretty much been dashed (with the exception of their occasional anime acquisitions). A quick look at the character designs for this movie will tell anybody watching everything it needs to know about the intended target audience. This is a movie for kids, no matter how many adult-oriented pop-culture references or celebrity voices the filmmakers include.

That said, the filmmakers do a pretty good job catering to the kids without insulting the parents. The only time they mention a character's age is Marty the Zebra's tenth birthday party, so even if he's a full-grown zebra with adult Chris Rock's voice, the kids still identify with him. The animals are all rather naive and innocent, and their first trip outside the zoo walls feels not like running away, but like kids sneaking out for innocent adventure. Of course, the rest of New York doesn't see a bunch of zoo animals walking around the city as innocent - especially the lion - so they're tranquilized, put on a boat, and shipped back home. When the penguins try to hijack the ship to reach Antartica, four of the animals - Marty, Alex the Lion (voice of Ben Stiller), Gloria the Hippo (voice of Jada Pinkett Smith), and Melman the Giraffe (voice of David Schwimmer) wind up marooned on the island of Madagascar, where the encounter a tribe of lemurs.

Madagascar, I figure, rises and falls on what how people like Stiller's Alex. Me, I liked him. It's Stiller in his overenthusiastic, maybe not-exactly-bright mode, but it fits the character perfectly. He makes Alex a big, overgrown man-child personality, physically adult but mentally still a cub, and when he's caught trying to take a bite out of one of his friends, his "no, I'm not" is pure hopeful five-year-old denial. In fact, it's even more innocent than that five year-old who doesn't realize his mother won't buy his fibs just because she loves him; he really doesn't understand how the situation came about. He's a lion with no conception that people and other animals are afraid of lions, or that the steaks he loves so much were once alive. When he finally gets hungry enough that his predatory instincts finally kick in, it's horrifying to him. He's just started learning how to be a lion, and liking it; does it have to include this?

None of the other characters have so meaty a storyline, if you'll pardon the pun. Marty's story is sort of the inverse - after yearning to see the world outside the Central Park Zoo, he finds that the wild is as filled with danger as it is wide open spaces - and if Melman or Gloria really grows or changes or does anything other than provide peer pressure to Alex, I'm not sure what it is. Most of the other characters are there for comic relief or giving the plot the occasional nudge - the lemurs' King Julian (voice of Sacha Baron Cohen) is a daffy type who'll amuse the kids, while his advisor Maurice (voice of Cedric the Entertainer) is stuck providing the voice of reason. Many of the funniest moments come from the quartet of determined penguins - especially hard-bitten leader Skipper (voiced by co-director Tom McGrath) - because the filmmakers manage to choose their moments well, milking comedy out of them being both ineffectual and surprisingly able (it works because they don't go back and forth; after showing them as successful, the movie doesn't try to get laughs out of them screwing up).

The visual presentation of this film is deceptively simple, as it emphasizes a simple, but charming, design over elaborately-rendered complexity. There are some detailed environments, but for the most part, bright colors and shapes that remain basic without looking abstract. The look is kind of a simplified Little Golden Book, especially with Gloria's roundness or Alex's flat, spiky mane. The penguins are beady-eyed little fellows, who almost look incongruous moving like penguins. They sound too tough to be forced to waddle, or slide on their bellies. The beach is deliberately sparse, compared to the busy (but not overwhelming) New York City "sets". I admit, I wondered where the light sources were in a sequence where we're seeing the animals through cutaways in their shipping boxes, but kids probably won't.

Like a lot of recent animated movies (especially from DreamWorks), this one dates itself more than it perhaps should. A reference to Cast Away already has a few whiskers on it, and who knows whether "I Like to Move It, Move It" will come across as a fun, upbeat song to use or as just an early-aughts thing in a few years. A bit more of a concern, perhaps, is how the movie glosses over the idea of whether zoos are good things or not; I got kind of uncomfortable when a newscaster used the phrase "animal rights whackos" - a movie for kids should probably be a little more even-handed.

But, then, kids are smarter than we often give them credit for; they may just filter that out and look down their noses at things I counted as clever. I enjoyed "Madagascar", though, and from the noise around me, the kids did too.

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