As I was watching MADAGASCAR, the new animated flick from Dreamworks, it occurred to me that there just aren’t enough lemurs in films of any kind and that’s a darn shame. Not just because as primates they’re our cousins, distantly, but also because there is something intrinsically and compellingly absurd in their large eyes and the way that they look at us with them as though we’re the ones who took the wrong fork in the evolutionary road.
The thing is that the lemurs in MADAGASCAR don’t show up until about halfway through the 80-minute running time and while they are very good, their king is a limber drama queen given to histrionic poses, odd plans, and only a scant acquaintance with reality, they are still a distant second to the quartet whose misadventures are chronicles therein. Actually, make that a close third. The penguins are the most vivid side-show, re-imagined here as living out a cracked but oddly apt version of Mission Impossible. Get used to this phrase: “The penguins are psychotic.” And that’s emblematic of how the writers have staked out new comedic territory while relying on some tried and true basics.
Things are set in motion when Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) turns 10, which prompts an evaluation of how his life turned out there in the Central Park Zoo. It’s a cushy gig and he’s a born showman, but he’s begun to ponder things like whether he’s white with black stripes or black with white stripes. It’s a line of thought that can’t help but lead to a certain discontent. And possible headaches. Add to that an idea planted in his head by the penguins during one of their attempts to tunnel to Antarctica: the wild. Sure, Marty has it confused with Connecticut, but a dream’s a dream and when he makes a break for Grand Central Station, there’s no turning back. Even if he isn’t so sure that he wants to go anymore. Unfortunately, he’s dragged his pals Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the hypochondriacal giraffe (David Schwimmer) along for the very bumpy ride. They end up, of course, on the eponymous island, which they mistake at first for San Diego. The lemurs set them straight, but not before Alex runs seriously afoul of some spiderwebs and Melman tussles with foliage and loses.
The writing is sharp. A stroll through the jungle that turns into a lesson on the food chain is harsh, yet hilarious, as the gang, and we, see object lesson after object lesson about how nature is tough but fair and it’s only slightly more vicious than the ferocious old lady Alex encounters on the mean streets of New York. The jokes, visual and verbal, come thick and fast with a giddy undercurrent of pop culture references that are all the more funny for being shameless.
The animation is as 3-D as a 2-D format can manage and life-like without being slavishly photographic. Ocean swells and Alex’s fluffy mane, which goes from impeccably groom to jungle frizzed, are rendered with astonishing detail and an artistic flair. The animators take full advantage of the weird flora on the island that look like something out of the Star Trek franchise, but actually exist. Ditto the fauna, which includes more than the lemurs, though none can hold a candle to them.
Improbably enough, though, this is as much a finely realized character study, albeit one sprung from the Commedia dell’Arte, as a simple comedy. Marty’s yearning is palpable, if unfocused. As the civilization loving Alex, Stiller is going for a lighter version of his character Zoolander, the self-absorbed king of New York whose likeness adorns all of the gift shop’s best selling items. Melman is the role Schwimmer was born to play, with a voice as droopy as Melman’s neck, and an emotional register that veers between wonderment and terror. They may not have a clue between them, but they’ve got heart, and a script that almost never lets sentiment get in the way of the fun. Gloria, whose nimbleness belies her considerable girth, is the brains of the operation, and she has an attitude that might very well be the result of being the smartest of the bunch.
MADAGASCAR is fresh, inventive and a wonder to behold. The only problem may be that with all the laughing, you might miss some of the best lines. Yet another reason to see it more than once.