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"Madagascar 2": A Great "Escape"

by on November 11, 2008

The first Madagascar felt like such a breath of fresh air amid the usual bluster of CGI-animated family films. Its beautifully stylized and cartoony art style set it apart from the ugly and dull designs of Antz, Shark Tale, and the Shrek series. It told a strong story filled with likable characters voiced by celebrities who truly fit their parts. It eschewed obnoxious and hyperactive comedy relief characters in favor of truly funny and memorable ones. And, above all, Madagascar was a solid film, largely because it succeeded in areas that are normally liabilities for other, lesser films of its type.

It has also now gotten a creditable sequel.

The plot to Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa chronicles the efforts of our quartet of New Yorker zoo dwellers (Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Melman the Giraffe, and Gloria the Hippo) to make it back to Manhattan. At the start, they bid farewell to Madagascar as they board an airplane refurbished by the penguins who so decisively stole the show the first time (and King Julian of the Lemurs is along for the ride as well). It looks promising, but in accordance with Newton’s Second Law of Cartoony Failures and Pratfalls, the plane runs of fuel and crash-lands on an African preserve. Ironically, the abundance of lions, zebras, giraffes, and hippopotami means that our four heroes are actually less out of place then they were in Manhattan.

From there, the animals go their separate ways and get involved with different conflicts. Alex is reunited with his parents (the opening scene show Alex being kidnapped and taken away from his father as a cub), and unwittingly gets his whole family banished by failing a rite of passage sabotaged by another, sinister lion named Makunga who has his eye on the kingship. Marty acclimates with a herd of zebras that are so much like him that he begins to doubt his own individuality. Melman becomes the witch doctor for a group of giraffes who suspect him of having a terminal witch doctor disease that prompts the whole “24 hours to live” trope. Gloria meets a suave Barry White-esque hippo who loves Gloria for her large size, her large size, and, her, I guess that’s the sum of it. Melman is also revealed to have feelings for Gloria (which comes somewhat out of the blue), which creates a hippo-hippo-giraffe love triangle that is quickly resolved in Melman’s favor. The penguins hijack a bunch of tour buses for spare parts for the plane, leaving the tourists marooned in the Serengeti to fend for themselves. Remember the old lady who pummeled Alex in the first movie? She leads the tourists into build a dam which dries up the reserve’s watering hole. Alex ventures off the reserve, to bring back the water and clear his reputation. King Julian, in an attempt to impose his unique ideas of monarchy on the reserve, convinces the animals to sacrifice someone to the gods in the volcano to bring back the water. Melman, seeing death as being imminent already, volunteers.

It gets busier: Alex is abducted by the humans, destroys the dam, impresses the (New Yorker) tourists with his moves, and proves himself to his father. Melman, while he doesn’t actually figure out he’s not dying, is spared the sacrifice and he and Gloria realize that they’ve found love. Alex and his father overthrow Makunga and restore proper order to the pride of lions. The characters decide to stay in Africa, while the head penguin, Skipper, finds true love in the form of a hula-dancer bobblehead.

As you can see, there are a lot, and I mean a lot, of interconnected plotlines going on simultaneously. The first Madagascar mostly focused on Marty’s desire for a change in scenery and Alex’s regression to his carnivorous primal state, so Gloria and Melman didn’t have much to do other than say the occasional funny line. Here, the four main characters each get their own plotlines that connect during the climax. King Julian and the penguins, supporting characters in the first film, graduate to being much more important to the proceedings this time around. Even the old lady is more thoroughly fleshed out as a character. The beginning and the middle are a tad disjointed, since this is where all of the plotlines are being established, but the climax fires on all cylinders.

None of the penguin material in the sequel can quite compare to one of them remarking how the bleak Antarctic tundra “sucks”, but they’re still very effective as comedic characters. In particular, their hijacking the DreamWorks logo at the very beginning is absolutely brilliant. Most of the drama is hinged on the lion-hippo-giraffe-zebra quartet, with the occasional weak gag in between plot developments. King Julian, being kind of out of his element here, doesn’t get as much funny material as before (although his reenactment of offering the gods a sacrifice is worth a laugh.) By far, the biggest laugh comes at the end, where the old lady kicks the stuffing out of a lion (and it’s not Alex). Never before in a CGI film have I seen such a great gag with such a perfect setup.

I can’t speak with too much authority on how much the sequel improves on its predecessor’s animation, but the cartoony character designs that made the first film a visual treat are still in full force here. The Africa backdrop offers some great atmosphere opportunities, which can be seen in the camera angles, the backgrounds, and the overall look of the movie.

And a word must be said about the vocal performances. Bernie Mac, in one of his last projects, recorded the voice of Zuba, Alex’s father, for this movie, and despite being one of the celebrity voices DreamWorks flicks are notorious for, Mac truly gave his all in his performance. His Zuba voice has a great range of subtleties and contains a great amount of emotion. Likewise, Alec Baldwin is appropriately smarmy and sinister as Makunga, the treacherous lion who wrongfully seizes control of Zuba’s pride. Will.i.am. channels Barry White in his performance as Moto Moto, the hippo who tries to win Gloria’s affections. In addition, all of the voice actors from the first movie return, giving solid performances just like they did the first time around.

Jeffery Katzenberg wants at least one more Madagascar sequelThe ending credits are based around “I Like to Move It, Movie It” (natch), but with a twist. All of the characters are designed in a paper cut-out style that is unique and eye-catching. It definitely ranks alongside The Incredibles and Kung Fu Panda for the distinction of “coolest ending credits in a CGI animated film”

I thoroughly enjoyed Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. While most CGI family films are shrill and juvenile, this one manages to be a funny refreshing experience. Jeffery Katzenberg wants at least one more Madagascar sequel to show how the lion, the zebra, the hippo, and the giraffe get back to the New York Zoo, and Madagascar might be one of the only CGI animated film franchises that could support this kind of a story arc (such as it is). Based on the goodness of the last two installments, I am looking forward to 2011.

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