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TBTS Reviews: Madagascar 3

June 12, 2012

When you’re the parent of a two year old, you have to watch a lot of ridiculous programming. Some of it is enjoyable (the celebrity cameos of Sesame Street, for example, are always a great deal of fun, as well as anything from Pixar) and some of it’s pretty god-awful (I am currently going to great lengths to hide from my son the fact that the insufferable Wiggles even exist). Children’s television and films can be quite entertaining to grown-ups in certain instances, however, and that makes taking a child to the movies all the more bearable.

For those of you who aren’t up to speed on the Madagascar universe, let me succinctly fill you in: In the first film, a group of animals — including a lion (Ben Stiller), a zebra (Chris Rock), a hippopotamus (Jada Pinkett-Smith) and a giraffe (David Schwimmer), along with a group of inventive penguins — escape the Bronx Zoo and find themselves in route to Madagascar, where they encounter the king of the lemurs (Sascha Baron Cohen, delightfully absurd) and his minions. The second film takes the group to Africa, and the conclusion of this film sees the aforementioned penguins and some Tom Wolfe-reading chimps taking off in a self-built airplane (think Flight of the Phoenix, only with flightless waterfoul) and off into the sunset.

At the opening of Madagascar 3, the penguins have touched down in fabulous Monte Carlo, where they’ve been running a scam dressed collectively as the King of Versailles and scoring fortunes at the gambling tables (don’t ask) when the main characters catch up to them before being chased out of town by a dastardly policewoman (Frances McDormand) bent on securing Alex the Lion’s head for her collection. They stow away on a European circus train in hopes that eventually the act will take them back to their beloved NYC. I’m sure all of this makes sense to you. 

The story is functional, but where a film like Madagascar 3 really shines is in the details: Rock and Stiller turn in solid, clever, funny performances as the ringleaders of the failing circus, all the while at odds with its prior stars (Bryan Cranston as an acrobatic Eastern Bloc tiger, Jessica Chastain as a sexy cheetah and Martin Short channeling Italian comic Roberto Benigni as a loopy sea lion). It really doesn’t matter what happens; Dreamworks does an incredibly smart thing with the already-far-fetched storyline as the general reality — and yes, the film had heretofore had some root in a real world — gets slowly ditched and gives way to a Looney Tunes-style lack of physics and an attention to broad but smart comedy.

It also helps that the proceedings are beautiful to look at. The Madagascar franchise has always been notable for its stunning animation, built mainly around a framework of odd angles, as if a children’s book come to life; but perhaps the most notable thing I took away from the summer kids’ movie was that it may officially be the first movie I wished I was watching in 3-D. As a fellow largely unimpressed with anything 3-D I’ve seen as of yet (though Jackass did some fun stuff with it), I’ve never been totally sold on the need for watching a film in 3-D when given the option of watching it in perfectly-fine 2-D. But I couldn’t help thinking how much more stunning Madagascar 3′s colorful setpieces, flying confetti and cirque du soleil-style acrobatics would have been in the new incarnation of three-dimensional moviewatching.

You could do a lot worse than Madagascar 3. It’s often funny and quick (owing largely to a script by Wes Anderson collaborator Noah Baumbach, he of the New Yorker’s “Shouts and Murmurs” section and Stiller’s unsung indie film Greenberg), as when Alex and his new cheetah partner bounce back and forth in a will-they-or-won’t-they fashion. “Say it, don’t spray it?” asks Alex. “What are you, five years old?” to which Chastain’s character responds glibly “Yes, yes I am.” Baron Cohen gets some great material here as well as the lemur king enamored with a silent, bicycle-riding bear in a pink tutu. It’s all a great deal of fun, even if it breezes by like a summer afternoon by the pool.

If you have children, Madagascar 3 is a solid outing. It’s nice to see films younger children can go to without worries of long, chatty scenes or frightening villain sequences (this year’s earlier The Lorax was a similarly surprising and wonderful movie in that vein as well), and adults will appreciate the absurd trippiness of it all. There’s nothing preachy or sentimental about it and everyone seems to be having a good time. That ain’t all bad. Dreamworks can be hit or miss with its animated offerings with Pixar still ruling the roost, but the Madagascar franchise is a concrete hit. And anytime a film can keep a two year old quiet and glued to the screen for an hour and a half, it must be doing something right.

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