Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/05/05 20:29:16

"As forgettable and disposable as family movies get."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

I realized all too late that my punishment for actually liking, or, at least, not minding such fluff as “Shark Tale” and “Robots” was that I now must endure “Madagascar.” Here we have a cartoon that, like most cartoons these days, has been produced mainly as a product and not really as a movie; jokes are told and lessons are learned, but only enough as to get the kids interested in buying Melman the Giraffe plush dolls. Not that I was expecting the cinematic magic of a Pixar release, but at least a workable storyline or some clever yuks would’ve been nice. As it is, “Madagascar” is a film that, visually, is quite colorful and lively, but what’s underneath is bland, uninventive, and downright dull.

The film’s problem is that it’s all premise and nothing else. To be fair, the premise is a cute one: Marty (voiced by Chris Rock) is a zebra at the Central Park Zoo; he yearns to run free in the wilds of Africa, or, at least, Connecticut. His friends - Alex, the lion (Ben Stiller); Gloria, a hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith); and the aforementioned Melman (David Schwimmer) - enjoy the safety and comfort of captivity, the only life they’ve known. And yet they cannot convince Marty to stay put, and soon find themselves trying to stop their pal from boarding a New England-bound train at Grand Central.

The ensuing chaos (we, the audience, can hear these animals speak our language, but the humans of the film only hear roars) results in the foursome being boxed up and shipped off to Africa. That’s where the subplot kicks in, one involving devious penguins planning their Antarctica escape with military precision. The boat turns, our heroes fall overboard, and soon they wake up on the shores of Madagascar.

Which is where the movie hits a wall. You can tell that the filmmakers - four writers, two of them directing - realized that the only thing that really worked here in terms of sheer fun was those tricky penguins. Before we get to the titular land, we get plenty of penguin action, always doled out just as the story begins to go limp. But after they sail away home, what then? The writers find themselves stuck with four characters about which nobody really cares (with no offense meant toward Pinkett Smith, the Gloria character is so vacant and useless that the filmmakers would have gotten the exact same results had they just inserted a cardboard sign reading “insert female character here,” and substituting all the dialogue with “blah blah, celebrity voice, blah blah”), and with no clue on what to do with them.

The Madagascar scenes are so lifeless that the writers eventually manage to bring the penguins back, for no reason other than to make them the film’s main selling point. (Hey, at least they know their weaknesses, even if they don’t bother to fix them.) The movie’s second half features a cloying, slapped-together-at-the-last-minute story in which Alex begins to hunger for zebra meat, and there’s also something about a tribe of unfunny lemurs (their king is voiced by Sasha Baron Cohen, aka “Ali G,” whose dopey accents-as-jokes is a style of comedy that’s just not for me) who need help defending themselves from hungry predators, and something else about… hmm? What’s that? The movie’s over? Already?

Yeah, the film is mercifully short, but in being so, it’s also too light on any complete story. The whole thing feels like a rough draft, a bare bones outline, with character development and action and interest to be inserted later.

What, then, is used to fill out the running time? Feeble pop culture references that are too grown-up to make sense to the youngsters and too unfunny to win over the older viewers. The film tosses us a “Chariots of Fire” gag just because its characters are running on a beach. That’s it. It’s a fifth-rate reference passed off as a top notch joke, and I’m not buying.

Sadly, it’s one of the film’s more successful reference/jokes. The writers also threw in parodies of “Planet of the Apes,” “Cast Away,” and “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” - the last of which had so much potential, considering the main characters, yet is thrown away instead with a scene that will only win eye rolls.

Worst of all is a take-off of “American Beauty.” First of all, what first grader’s going to understand any of this, and secondly, “Family Guy” did the exact same gag a few years back, only much, much funnier.

References as punchlines, when pulled off well, can be plenty fun. But it’s a major risk, not only because such jokes can quickly date your film, but also because if the reference is all there is to a joke, odds are pretty high that the joke won’t fly.

But that’s all “Madagascar” bothers to offer. Sure, the penguin bits are funny in spots, as are a few other random yuks (OK, so I liked Schwimmer’s neurotic giraffe, and anything involving monkeys discussing poo-throwing will always make me giggle). And sure, the computer animation is bright and vibrant and everything we’ve come to expect our computer animated films to be. But the filmmakers give us nothing else, nothing at all. Their product is merely a time-passer for the kiddies, crammed together with little effort and no thought beyond what would make a quick sell in the cross-marketing department. In an age where Pixar can deliver majestic works that shine on multiple levels, there’s no reason to ask our kids to bother with disposable projects like this.

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