- Title: Madagascar
- IMDB: link
Since the inception of its computer animation department, Dreamworks has consistently played second fiddle to the powerhouse of Pixar. Not in sheer numbers, but in the quality of their stories and the sophistication of their delivery. With Madagascar, Dreamworks has made a signifigant step toward making quality animated films that have something to say that’s as important as the jokes.
In what has to be the single best designed animated effort to date from Dreamworks, Madagascar tells the story of Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer), and Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), four Central Park Zoo attractions who eventually find themselves stranded in the wilds of Madagascar, unprepared for demands of wild life and the changes it brings upon them.
While this is billed as an ensemble film (and indeed it boasts an impressive and well realized supporting cast), this is Ben Stiller’s movie. His Alex the Lion is the star (and poster-lion) of the zoo, all ego and comfort as he’s fed the best steaks, is adored by all, and his life lacks for nothing. But upon hitting the beach at Madagascar he has to come to grips with not only the lack of comfort, but of his own instincts as a predator and how that will affect his friendship with Marty. To be sure, the pitch of a lion and a zebra as best friends is an interesting one, and that concept (and the inherent conflict therein) could have fueled the entire movie, but since this is a family film there’s no shortage of wacky characters and goofball antics.
Schwimmer and Pinkett-Smith aren’t given much to do besides punch the clock as thinly drawn foils, and while Rock’s voice work is a sight better than his physical acting skills, there’s no real thought to his character. Thankfully, a supporting cast that boasts a scene stealing Sacha Baron Cohen (otherwise known as Ali G) as the loopily dopey king of the Lemurs, Andy Richter as Mort (one of the hands-down cutest animated characters in years), and 4 penguins (voiced by the directors and various crew) that could carry, if not a movie, than at least a couple of shorts, fill in all the weak spots with an effortlessly endearing and pleasant insanity that lifts Madagascar up from the rest of Dreamworks’ animated efforts.
Most animated fare knows to aim a goodly portion of the jokes firmly over the head of its younger audience to keep the adults happy, and this film manages to work on both levels. There’s a noticeable drop in the pop-culture references that drown other Dreamworks films, and those that did make the cut are smart and inventive enough to be rewarding. While the American Beauty riff will probably get the most attention, I was most impressed with the very subtle (and brief) nod to Roland Joffe’s The Mission.
As I’m notoriously hostile to the Shrek films, and have so far managed to avoid spending time with A Shark’s Tale, I will admit to some seriously low expectations for Madagascar, but I’m more than willing to admit that this film might be the perfect summer film, and is most likely to have a shelf life longer than the hopelessly dated Shrek films. Dreamworks isn’t swinging in Pixar’s weight-class yet, but if Madagascar is any indication they might only be a few films shy of finally turning out a bona-fide classic animated film.