Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer), and Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) are stranded in Africa, abandoned by their crew of penguin engineers and monkey manual labor (and the super-plane on which they all ride). Turns out, those penguins were heading from Africa to Monte Carlo to spend a pile of gold and jewels at the casinos. There’s only one solution for the animal crew: swim across the Mediterranean to Monte Carlo and get those penguins to take them back to America and their home at the Central Park Zoo.
Unfortunately, after some infighting and a spectacular snafu, the animals are on the run from the villainous French animal control officer Captain Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand) and her crew of mostly indestructible henchmen. Captain DuBois wants a lion head to complete her collection, and Alex is a lion, so you can kind of see why she’d want to hunt him down. Fortunately, the gang finds refuge in an unlikely place: a traveling circus.
The circus animals include Vitaly the Lion (Bryan Cranston), Gia the Cheetah (Jessica Chastain), Stefano the Sea Lion (Martin Short) and many other interesting characters. As it turns out, the circus has a date in London where an American talent scout will be waiting to offer them a contract to go to New York City. That’s home; will the gang get back home to their park, or will their motley circus fall apart around them?
One of the things you can say for Madagascar 3 is that it makes some really good use of 3D elements. There’s a particularly stellar sequence in which the animals do their circus act that is visually stunning, if simple. It is mostly a black background, but the flying characters and neon effects are amazing. You have to give it up to Dreamworks; it knows how to make animation really pop, even in the darker environment of the digital third dimension. It was very colorful consistently, even if I doubt you lose much by opting for the 2D showing.
It was also consistently entertaining. There were a few scenes that seemed slow, but only because they were the rare scenes that weren’t progressing at warp speed. There was always something going on in the movie, no doubt to make sure that kids stay entertained throughout. Just when things seemed to calm down, there would be another joke, pratfall, action set piece… something would be happening at all times, and that means that the film’s 85 minutes just flew by; the audience of children at my screening never seemed to get fussy, save for one or two scenes. That’s a minor miracle these days.
The end result is all the more impressive when you consider that there were three directors and three writers credited to the picture. The script, from Madagascar minder Eric Darnell and indie darlings Noah Baumbach (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Greenberg) is actually pretty sharp, dialog-wise. There are some very witty moments to reward adults, and some Madagascar goofiness to reward kids. It’s all over-the-top, but it shoots to entertain the entire time, and while the villain doesn’t really work most of the time, she has her moments.
The plot is paper-thin, but there are some good interaction scenes with Alex and company (and one really good joke for adults). The trio of directors are all Dreamworks animation stalwarts: Darnell, Tom McGrath (Megamind, the other Madagascars), and Conrad Vernon (Shrek 2, Monsters vs. Aliens). Hence, the machine-gun pacing.
The Madagascar series isn’t the most highly-regarded of Dreamworks animation, and Madagascar 3 won’t be changing that impression. Still, there’s a lot worse out there as far as animation goes, and it’s better than the most recent Pixar offering, Cars 2. (And how often can you say that?!) It’s far from brilliant, but there are enough moments to make it a good summer diversion for the kids.