Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa Poster

One reason to lament the existence of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (which will hereafter be referred to merely as Madagascar 2) is too bemoan the considerable amount of talent that was tied up developing this uninspired sequel when it could have been employed in the service of something fresh and new. As a product - a flashy and shiny bauble lighting up the screen, featuring familiar faces and voices and offering a brief diversion from the real world - Madagascar 2 accomplishes what it sets out to do. The bar isn't that high, but the picture clears it. This movie reminds me of the forgettable Disney animated movies from the immediate pre- Little Mermaid era: creative sinkholes brought to the screen exclusively to provide parents and children with an opportunity to bond over something that's not frightfully bad. If Madagascar 2 is the best Dreamworks can provide to go toe-to-toe with Pixar's beautiful WALL*E, then it's game, set and match to the Disney subsidiary.

The IMAX version of Madagascar 2 is being sold as the best way to see the film, and it's no wonder. Whatever faults this movie may have, it is a visual feast and a definite step-up from the disappointing look of its predecessor. With full, vibrant colors and richly detailed backgrounds, Madagascar 2 has as much "pop" as any recent digitally animated production. The bigger the screen, the more likely one is to become immersed in the experience and not care as much about the myriad weaknesses that keep Madagascar 2 grounded. If only the movie had a story to match the craft of its animators. The problem with the film lies with the writers (who are also the co-directors). Instead of doing something interesting with the leftovers from the first Madagascar, they elected to play it safe and perform a do-over. And, at least for adults, safe can be boring. Kids will be delighted by the cute, wisecracking animals and vivid hues. Adults can sleep through half the movie and not miss anything.

Returning are our animal cracker heroes from the first film: Alex the dancing lion (voice of Ben Stiller), Marty the acid-tongued zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the dour giraffe (David Schwimmer), and Gloria the happy hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith). When the makeshift plane they're using to return to their Central Park Zoo home goes down not long after takeoff, they find themselves stranded in Africa. This unexpected detour reunites Alex with his father, Zuba (the late Bernie Mac); puts a strain on lovelorn Melman's pining for Gloria; and introduces Marty to hundreds who look and talk just like him. Eventually, it's up to the quartet of newcomers to head upstream into the unprotected wilderness beyond the animal preserve and determine why the life-giving river providing water has dried up.

It's not much of a plot, but that shouldn't be a surprise. Madagascar 2 isn't about story, so its combination of elements from The Lion King, Finding Nemo, and Joe Versus the Volcano represents the maximum narrative density one could reasonably expect from this movie. For Madagascar 2 to work, you have to really like the characters. And, while the vocal work of Chris Rock and Jada Pinkett Smith is outstanding, Ben Stiller and David Schwimmer are dull and anonymous. The anonymity isn't a problem - many of Disney's classic animated characters were voiced by unknowns - but the lifelessness is.

The soundtrack features "More than a Feeling" by Boston and "Copacabana" by Barry Manilow, as well as playful snippets of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly", "Born Free", and "New York, New York." So there's music, but this isn't a return to the Disney-style animated musicals of the '90s. The humor is, for the most part, geared toward children, with the occasional double-entendre designed to go over the heads of younger viewers. As was the case with the first film, the penguins get all the best lines. One suspects the film would have been more entertaining had it concentrated on them, just as the Ice Age movies would work better if they focused on the misadventures of the sabertooth squirrel.

It's hard for me to generate much enthusiasm for or against Madagascar 2. It is what it is and it will absorb entertainment-thirsty families the way a parched sponge sucks up water. It's an adequate way to spend 90 minutes with the family and, seen from that perspective, it achieves its aims. However, this is not the kind of animated movie that provides a rich, fulfilling experience for solo, adult viewer. As such, it is more properly labeled a "children's movie" than a "family film." And, like many such films that target less discriminating viewers, it's as forgettable as it is disposable.

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:29
U.S. Release Date: 2008-11-07
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1