Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
The visual artistry in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is certainly impressive. Compared to the somewhat visually dull 2005 original (it wasn't a bad looking movie, just nothing stood out about the film), this movie pops right off the screen and is awash in lush colors, vibrant animation, and beautiful scenery. I can only imagine what this film looks like on an IMAX screen. (I, unfortunately, had to watch it in a standard theater.) There's obviously a lot of talent at Dreamworks animation studio, now they just need some writers who can come up with an actual plot. Though entirely watchable for kids and adults (kids especially will love it), Madagascar 2 is saddled with a slight and derivative plot that never allows us to care about anything but the visuals.
Although the original Madagascar was not my favorite animated film, it certainly had its charms thanks to a talented voice cast and a sharp sense of humor. The sequel makes a big mistake by separating the main characters for most of its running time, and giving each one his or her own individual storyline, none of them really coming together. The movie picks up where the original left off, with Alex the lion (voice by Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) leaving the island they've been stranded on. With the aid of some covert-minded penguins and the loopy lemur king, Julian (Sacha Baron Cohen), the animals have managed to piece together a crude airplane that can hopefully get the four friends back to New York and the Central Park Zoo where they belong. The patched-up plane falls apart mid-flight, and the group find themselves lost in a different kind of wilderness - the wilds of Africa.
When the animals crash in Africa, the movie crashes along with it. In Africa, the four main characters discover others of their own kind, and go their separate ways. In a flashback that opens the film, we learn that Alex was originally the cub to a proud king named Zuba (late comic actor, Bernie Mac), until he was snatched away by hunters and eventually made his way to New York, where he became a celebrity. Now back in Africa, Alex is reunited with his father and mother (Sherri Shepherd), and plans to join his parents to rule over the other animals. Unfortunately, a scheming lion named Makunga (Alec Baldwin) wants to rule, and tricks Alex into being banished. If you think this sounds somewhat similar to Disney's The Lion King, you're not alone. As for his friends, Marty finds a herd of zebras that look, talk, and act exactly like him, which makes him feel like he doesn't matter or stand out in any way. Meanwhile, Gloria looks for love with another hippo named Moto Moto (recording artist and writer, Will.i.am), not realizing that Melman has long held feelings for her. And trust me, the thought of a giraffe and a hippo in a romantic relationship provided much more entertainment to me than anything in the screenplay.
Though not without its moments, Madagascar 2 is not as funny as the original, and the returning characters don't get to stand out as much due to the fact they're surrounded by the uninspired new cast. Returning directors and co-writers Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath seem at a loss as to what to do with these animals. Each of the storylines that have been written for them never quite develop. We never get a real sense of the relationship between Alex and his parents, because they're not given enough time together. The scheming Makunga never develops as a true villain, since he pretty much pops up to cause trouble, then leaves the movie, almost as if he was added in as an afterthought. And the memorable supporting characters from the last film, like the penguins and lemurs, seem to be here because they were in the first movie. The screenplay can't quite find a way to fit them in, so it cuts away to a cute skit concerning them, then goes back to the action. The fragmented nature of the film never allows the numerous characters and subplots to come together. I often felt as if I was watching a series of failed ideas for short cartoons rather than one complete feature.
Besides the visuals, the main thing to recommend in Madagascar 2 are the performances. Despite being given very little to do, Ben Stiller, Jason Schwimmer, Sacha Baron Cohen, and comic Cedric the Entertainer (as Julian's right-hand lemur) at least hit the right notes in their voice acting. Jada Pinkett Smith and Chris Rock get some individual moments to shine, as do the actors who play the penguins (they seem to get all the best lines), but the rest of the cast is mainly as uninspired as the characters they're playing. It gives the movie an all around generic feeling that one usually finds in those straight to DVD movies and sequels the Disney studio used to put out on a regular basis. Even when a real crisis shows up late in the film (the watering hole dries up), the movie fails to get us involved and simply uses it as an excuse to pretend there's a point to this movie other than to milk more money out of something that was perfectly all right three years ago, but not much more than that.
This is the kind of movie that doesn't really stand out, but at least does its job. Kids will be entertained, and adults will get a couple laughs out of the jokes that will fly over the heads of kids. But, it all boils down to the fact that anyone over the age of 10 will find it hard to generate much excitement over this movie. The team behind this movie obviously put a lot of effort into making a great-looking animated film. Now they just need some real substance to back it up. Madagascar 3 has already been confirmed for a 2011 release, so there's hope. Frankly, I'd concentrate more on the penguins next time around. They get the best scenes, and their own movie is long overdue.
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