Monday, November 10, 2008

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

By Elise Nakhnikian

There’s not enough originality, character development, or emotional depth in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa to leave much of an impression, but it’s fun while it lasts. Like the popular original, this creamily beautiful animated sequel combines upbeat energy, catchy pop anthems, and a general spirit of benevolent goofiness. As Nana, its indestructible Jewish grandma, might say: What’s not to like?

Madagascar 2 starts with the back story of Alex (rather blandly voiced by Ben Stiller), the performing city-cat lion who ruled the Central Park Zoo in Madagascar – until he and his friends broke out to vacation in Connecticut and landed way off course. The sequel’s streamlined script shows us just enough of the unconventional cub’s idyllic life on an African game preserve before he’s kidnapped by poachers and winds up at the Central Park Zoo. A TV news clip recaps his escape with his friends Gloria the hippo (voiced by the lively Jada Pinkett Smith), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer, playing yet another winsomely whiny neurotic). It also reintroduces Nana, whose cameo in part one, a wink to the toughness of many elderly Jewish New Yorkers, is stretched too thin here.

Cut to the present. Alex and his friends are preparing to leave their cozy Madagascar community to head home to New York on a patched-together plane. They’re joined by King Julien (riffed by Sacha Baron Cohen in a choked yet joyous polyglot accent), who continues to serve up some of the franchise’s loosest and silliest comic relief. And they’re guided once again by the militaristic penguins, still led by the unaccountably confident and always wrong Skipper (codirector Tom McGrath, who appears to be channeling the late Phil Hartman).

Things go wrong en route, of course, and the penguins crash land the plane. This time, they wind up in the middle of the reserve where Alex was born. It’s paradise, gorgeous vistas teeming with herds of animals, including one for each of the uprooted friends. “It’s like Roots!” crows Marty, in one of many references aimed straight past kids’ heads at their parents.

What’s more, Alex’s father, Zuba (warmly voiced by the late Bernie Mac, to whom the movie is dedicated), is still the leader of the reserve’s lion pride. He and Alex’s mother soon recognize their son and there’s a joyous reunion, but peace and quiet never last long in this movie.

Screenwriter Etan Cohen and directors McGrath and Eric Darnell keep several conventional story lines going at once, stripping each down to the essentials and then decorating it with a few mildly funny lines or situations. Marty finds that every zebra in the herd looks and acts exactly like him, making him doubt his own uniqueness. Gloria gets wooed by a Mr. Right who turns out to be all wrong – and then finds true love in the unlikely form of Melman. Melman finds use for the knowledge he’s stored up in a lifetime of hypochondria by becoming the animals’ doctor – and, of course, gets his girl. And Alex finds not only his parents but his place in the pride, vanquishing a crafty rival voiced by a purring Alec Baldwin.

In the original, animals that would normally either eat or be eaten by one another can coexist peacefully in the zoo because they’re fed by their keepers -- but Alex has to deal with his primal need to eat when he’s on his own in the wild. Even his best friend, Marty, starts to look disconcertingly like dinner.

Madagascar 2 has developed amnesia about that part of its story, except for a few cracks Marty makes about the time Alex bit him. This game reserve is Eden, a place where lions make pets of dik diks, adorable little antelopes that make tasty snacks for real lions in Africa. These animals face trouble when their water hole mysteriously dries up, but there’s no hint that they have anything to fear from each other.

But hey, why look for logic in pure escapism? Think of Madagascar 2 as a vaudeville routine. Its best bits are its song and dance numbers (Alex’s slow-mo move is particularly sweet) and absurdist riffs on a theme. And every now and then there’s a great corny joke, like when the skipper admires the blueprint one of his crew made of the plane they’re repairing. “Looks impressive, Kowalski,” says the skipper, “but will it fly?” Why sure, says Kowalski, folding the blueprint into a paper airplane and sailing it out past the rest of the crew.

Madagascar 2 moves like a mountain stream, shallow but bright and quick-moving. Go with the flow if you want a mini-vacation from reality.

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