“Just smile and wave boys. Smile and wave.”
Made as though in opposition to Pixar’s brand of magical storytelling, Dreamworks Animation’s Madagascar ushered in the studio’s want for broader comedy and adolescent appeal. With Shrek, they found a franchise that subverted Disney’s use of fairy tales for cinematic fodder and created a nice hybrid of laughs and story with an underdog hero inside an ugly duckling tale. But after a steady stream of Pixar work including Monsters Inc. and the previous year’s The Incredibles, you have to believe that Dreamworks saw it beneficial to target a different audience. I’m not saying Pixar doesn’t cater to children—their animation is beloved by younger generations—they simply have an unparalleled sophistication and quality that can only be aspired towards. So, discovering Madagascar‘s construction as more a series of comedy bits than a strongly driven plot doesn’t surprise.
Disney had gone this route before, (Emperor’s New Groove), and after, (Meet the Robinsons), but there is just something about their work that goes beyond the jokes. For me, Madagascar feels like a showcase for comedians and it’s at the detriment to an already flimsy plot that goes nowhere. Ben Stiller (Alex the lion) and Chris Rock (Marty the zebra) are great in their lead roles as best friend zoo residents who’ve yet to understand they’re mortal enemies in the wild, but they don’t have much besides memorable oneliners. Throw in Sacha Baron Cohen‘s antics—an early version of his The Dictator persona—Andy Richter‘s overly cutesy shtick as Mort, and the brilliant vocal styling of Conrad Vernon and Tom McGrath and you’ve got a line-up ripe for laughs inside a vehicle that doesn’t care about becoming more.
It’s a shame too because the film starts off nicely. We meet Alex and Marty on the latter’s tenth birthday as the zebra begins to lament his dead-end existence. Wanting to be free, he wishes to escape captivity like a quartet of militant penguins—the film’s best part—and finds his way to Grand Central Station as result. But before Alex, Melman the giraffe (a neurotic David Schwimmer in his element), and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) incite a giant public safety issue that eventually lands them in wooden crates headed for Kenya, writers Eric Darnell, McGrath, Mark Burton, and Billy Frolick succeed in creating a brilliant dynamic between animal and people. Frightened by concepts of existentialism and always in conversation with each other, the four-legged creatures’ eloquent attempts at engaging humanity become growls and roars beyond our ears’ comprehension.
It’s okay though because they play their part. Alex thinks he’s a star and basks in the glory of his fans; Gloria traipses around her aquarium tank like a mermaid; and the penguins keep up a knowing façade despite acknowledging the ruse of their imprisonment. Vernon’s Mason the monkey is a fantastic bit of comedy with an air of aristocracy to juxtapose his penchant for poo-flinging and Melman goes through life crippled by hypochondria and a love for the MRI. Their collision course with a willing audience is perfect fodder for an inventive satire to help kids relate to feelings of helplessness and insecurity through entertainingly personified beasts they all love. But besides a couple easy laughs at their interactions—Alex calling the police on a pay phone is my favorite—all potential evaporates once they wash ashore onto the titular island.
From here the film devolves into a lame series of gags pitting Marty and Alex against each other after the lion’s desire for red meat turns every living creature into a walking steak. Humans are no longer a part of the equation and the story hurts as a result since it becomes yet another fully contained world of animals without a desire to show their place in the grand scheme of life. The ingenuity of its opening thirty minutes is forgotten and its shortcomings are exposed once Cohen’s King Julien XIII enters at the top of an indigenous lemur community ravaged by the villainous fossas who do nothing but serve as a means to make Alex the hero audiences clamor for in a movie like this.
Cohen is certifiably insane in a kooky way and although his rendition of “I Like to Move It” is enjoyed by all ages, his character is completely unnecessary besides serving as more comic relief in a film overflowing with it. Considering nothing really happens from start to finish to show character growth or accomplishment against adversity since the animals feel lost in prison and more so in the wild—they were also close friends at the start and remain so at the end—Madagascar simply becomes a means to let its actors have fun. In this respect I applaud the filmmakers as I laughed a lot and admittedly kept a smile on my face for the duration despite my total disinterest in the plot. The film made a boatload of money and proved success isn’t limited to a Pixar-caliber script.
I was happy watching Stiller, Schwimmer, Rock, and Smith go over-the-top and zany and was more than willing to continuously wait for penguins Skipper, Kowalski, Private, and Rico to come back onscreen. These monochromatic birds are a blast with disparate personalities and constant slapstick whacks, almost making up for the film’s utter lack of substance due to the simple fact they were unleashed upon our pop culture lexicon. With a nicely stylized angular animation aesthetic and characters that can’t help but be adorably cute and instant favorites in any child’s mind, Dreamworks shows how toeing the line of obnoxiousness with broad comedy sometimes can sustain a brisk 86-minute adventure. Unfortunately, the result is not a great movie—just an entertaining string of humorous sketches.