DreamWorks Animation seized an opportunity to add another chapter to a previous hit. While there are countless mindsets to take when reviewing a movie, for me, mainstream animated films are best measured against two yardsticks: does it deliver for the target audience of kids and is there enough to keep the parents' attention?
Movie Review: Madagascar 2
By Daron Aldridge
November 12, 2008
For Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, the answer for both of these questions is affirmative. For their first animated sequel that wasn't part of Shrek marketing machine, DreamWorks didn't monkey with the formula that made the first one successful, despite a title wasn't inherently easy for its audience to say. (It is referred to as "the Alex the lion" movie in my house.)
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa begins with a retelling of how a young cub Alex ended up in New York. Alex's father, Zuba (voiced by the late Bernie Mac), is the alpha lion of an animal reserve in Africa. He is trying to teach his son how be a fighter. Fittingly, Alex is more inclined to dance, perform and entertain, which makes him famous at the zoo. While Zuba is fighting a lion rival, Makunga, cub Alex is lured off the reserve by hunters. During an effectively exciting but too brief chase by Zuba, Alex's crate falls off the hunters' truck into a river and floats to New York, where is adopted by the zoo. This introductory sequence sets the stage for the telegraphed reunion with his parents and introduces the film's primary bad guy, Makunga, voiced with smarminess by Alec Baldwin with a jet black pompadour of a mane, or what counts as a villain in this film.
After a newsreel recap of how the main characters ended up in Madagascar, the sequel picks up where the first concluded with Alex (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) still stranded but attempting to fly home on the repaired plane the lemurs lived in. As expected, two of the most memorable (for better or worse depending upon your age) elements of the first film are predictably present: the ubiquitous "I Like to Move It" song and the militaristic quartet of penguins. As expected, the filmmakers use the song within the first ten minutes, sung by the four friends as they prepare to leave the island.
Unsurprisingly for a plane repaired by penguins and lemurs with wood and twine, the flight doesn't quite make it to North America but succeeds in crashing on the African mainland. While the penguins fix the plane with the help of a soon-to-be unionized workforce of chimpanzees, Alex and company end up in the very place ruled by Alex's dad. For a movie that clocks in just under 90 minutes, there is a ton of plot to go around for each of the four characters. The central story is for Alex to be reunited with his family and then be accepted for who he is, which is an entertainer and not a fighter. This point is driven home regularly as Alex gets beat up in slapstick fashion on a couple of occasions. Due to the manipulation of Makunga, Alex and Zuba's reunion is short-lived. Overall, this story plays like a less violent and emotional variation on the Lion King's story of a prodigal son returning. The stakes aren't as grand for Alex and Zuba compared to Simba, which proves that the filmmakers were focusing on making a lighthearted comedy and not a message film.
Each of Alex's friends is also at first excited about being around others of their species and then encounter their own issues with their new surroundings, whether it's a lack of individuality, the notion of impending death or undeclared love. Fortunately for kids, these aren't overtly obvious or too pivotal to the action to distract their attention from the silliness. Speaking of silliness, Lemur King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) is on the peripheral for much of the movie. Basically, he shows up, does something wacky and obliviously farfetched, and then fades out until his next cue.
Since this is a kids' movie, the ending won't surprise anyone but the journey is pure popcorn fun. The expanded role of the penguins as the ringleaders of the whole escape operation is welcomed with their mission to gather parts and organize their primate laborers as standouts.
The biggest misstep in the film is the forced subplot of the stranded New Yorkers on safari that creates a Lord of the Flies-like society, with the unwelcome return of the grandmother that beat up Alex in Grand Central Station previously. She is given significant screen time, possibly more than Makunga. While this tangent does serve a purpose for Alex, it is just a tired retread of "Look, we can make the elderly do uncharacteristic things. Isn't that funny?" a la the rapping granny from The Wedding Singer.
It seems that the filmmakers knew they weren't going to be making a masterpiece that would fit into Pixar's filmography and had no intention of attempting to do so. You can't have steak for every meal. Sometimes a Hebrew National hot dog smothered in condiments is just what you want. WALL-E, Monsters, Inc., and Toy Story are marbled, perfectly grilled steaks (sorry, vegetarians) and both Madagascar films are tasty, ballpark food. You really enjoy it but it wouldn't be on your last supper menu.
Ultimately, kids will love it. They are not going to question a crate floating from Africa to New York, notice the sudden appearance of a distinctive birthmark on Alex or the fact that all these wild animals live in relative peace, despite the fact that most of them would be the lion's dinner. The crowded theater with two-thirds being ten-years-old or younger laughed in all the expected places and that laughter was pretty hearty. So, DreamWorks gave them what they wanted and I found myself entertained but it might have been because my five-year-old with his infectious laugh thoroughly enjoyed it.