There are moments in DreamWorks' new computer animated cartoon Madagascar that bring up the uncomfortable funk of DreamWorks' failed “adult” TV series Father of the Pride (performing lions, cushy zoos, celebrity voice casting). Fortunately for DreamWorks (and all of us, for that matter), those moments soon fade into the background as the film settles into familiar “kids' movie lined with pop cultural references for the adults” territory.
To start things off, Madagascar boasts a clever setup. Our main characters are a lion named Alex (Ben Stiller), a zebra named Marty (Chris Rock), a hippo named Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) and a giraffe named Melman (David Schwimmer). All four are coddled residents of the Central Park Zoo. And, since all are native New Yorkers, they're also neurotic. Marty, bored of life in the zoo and dreaming of the fabled “wild,” decides to escape one day and head out in search of adventure (by misguided way of Grand Central Station). His pals come to the rescue (via the subway), but all end up branded as trouble-making beasts and are quickly shipped out of the zoo, bound for a wildlife reserve in Kenya. Along the way, assorted shipboard troubles leave our four protagonists washed up on the shores of the titular island nation. It seems their dreams of freedom (well, Marty's dreams, anyway) have all come true. Unfortunately, the wild isn't quite what these urban animals have come to expect.
Despite the star casting, our four protagonists aren't really all that interesting. They've each got their own little character quirks. (Alex, for example, is used to being the heavily merchandised star performer.) But mostly, they're a collection of fairly obvious fish-out-of-water stereotypes. (David Schwimmer as a whiny hypochondriac? That must have taken about a minute and a half to cast.) At least the film finds itself a nifty central conflict for our heroes to deal with. After a day or two in the jungle, Alex figures out that he's a carnivore and his best friend Marty figures out that he's, well, prey. Their suddenly antagonistic relationship forms the core of the film's narrative.
Still, it's the supporting characters that hoard all the laughs here. A quartet of militant, escape artist penguins and a nutty tribe of lemurs are far and away the most memorable day-players. It's not that the main voice actors are bad. Stiller summons more enthusiasm here than he has in his last three or four films, and Rock actually gets to play around with some decent drama instead of being asked to recite Hollywood's token “I'm the black guy” wisecracks. The problem is (as Robots recently proved) big-name actors don't necessarily add a lot to the party with only their voice. Most are barely recognizable and not all that memorable. On the other hand, Brit comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (best known as Ali G) throws everything he's got into the hilarious role of King Julian, demented dictator of the lemurs. His ludicrous schemes to get the "New York giants" (as he calls them) to protect his tribe from some nasty wild dogs are the film's high points.
As a piece of summer entertainment, Madagascar fulfills the minimum daily requirement. The script is slim, the design is claustrophobic and the voice work is bland. Overall, it's about ten notches below the average Pixar film. Still, it's cute enough to provide a chuckle or two on a too-hot Saturday afternoon. Plus, I guarantee you won't get your kids to stop singing King Julian's showstopping version of the ubiquitous soca jam “I Like to Move It” from now till August.