“I find it pretty and slightly hypnotic”
It’s amazing what happens when filmmakers craft a plot for their characters. I’m not saying I approve of sequels with lame flashback origin prologues trying to make up for the lack of story in their predecessors, but I won’t complain if such contrivances help ground the jokes into a cohesive three act structure. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa isn’t hampered by the need to remove its leads from their fabricated habitat, instead starting off the reservation and relying on everyone’s intrinsic desire to return home. Whether that’s the comfort of a New York City cage or an unknown birthplace, young and old can relate to such a powerful need for normalcy, familiarity, and safety. And if Madagascar taught this odd quartet anything, it’s how adventure isn’t necessarily their favorite past time. They’ll still make the best of it, though.
Taking a couple chapters from The Lion King‘s book, we return to Alex (Ben Stiller), Marty (Chris Rock), Melman (David Schwimmer), and Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) via a look into the past. Catching the young lion cub with his father Zuba (Bernie Mac), it is made apparent that Alex wasn’t born in captivity. The son of an alpha king on a nature preserve in Africa, he is led away by hunters while Zuba defends his leadership against the villainous Makunga (Alec Baldwin). A lion looking for the power to rule with a selfish flair, the large-haired rival is defeated in battle but the king is devastated emotionally after failing to retrieve his son. A gunshot rings through the air and the locale shifts to America to watch as the tiny four-legged dancer gets a taste of performing in the limelight without looking back.
From here writers Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, and Etan Cohen work in a bit of summary with an informative television montage showing the highlights of the zoo escape. A telling fact to discover the only important events from the first Madagascar happened before landing on the titular island, we’re whooshed away to meet up with our adventurers not too long after leaving them. Hoping to fly back to New York with the help of the hilariously crazed penguins—Skipper (McGrath), Kowalski, Rico, and Private stealing the show again with a well-earned bump in screen time—steering King Julien XIII’s (Sacha Baron Cohen) dilapidated airplane, they slingshot into the sky and eventually crash land in the desert. What desert you ask? Yup, the one from the beginning that just happens to be Alex’s old stomping ground. Perhaps the wild may suit them after all.
The evil Makunga is older with a streak of grey, (Scar anyone?); Zuba and wife (Sherri Shepherd) are tellingly deflated but still in charge; and the animals surrounding the waterhole show how personality and action are in the DNA. The herd of zebra shows Marty they’re hive mind—each also voiced by Rock; the hippos possess a burning sexuality right up Gloria’s alley; and the giraffes are almost as fretfully worrisome as Melman, looking at his ‘modern’ leadership to become their new doctor tasked with saving injured animals from wasting away in the dying holes. The fodder for laughs is large, but each chuckle has relevancy to the story this time rather than simply delivering comedy in spite of it. Even quick cuts to the penguins’ matter-of-fact machinations or Mason the monkey (Conrad Vernon) and his opposable thumbed friends mean something as they rebuild the plane.
At only 89-minutes, plenty of time is spent showing the wealth of comedic talent eventually woven together by a late-developing issue of life and death. A dam outside the preserve’s gates blocks their water source and it’s up to Alex’s outsider to bravely venture and save the day. Cohen’s lemur Julien also gets up to his asinine antics by cajoling everyone into sacrificing someone to the Gods for salvation, but it’s Alex finding inner strength that really matters. The lead foursome have by this point become at odds considering the distance built between them after joining their own species for the first time while love is in the air—both platonically and romantically. As threads tie off, those bored by the main story can bask in the knowledge that Skipper, Mason, and the periphery boys won’t disappoint.
The writers do try a little too hard to retain what worked from the first, including the blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Nana (Elisa Gabrielli) in an antagonistic role to keep the animals honest. Lost on vacation with a bunch of New Yorkers thanks in no small part to the penguins, Nana goes mano-a-mano with Alex, Makunga, and more to prove the elderly aren’t as frail as we think. I’m not sure her laugh from the first warranted such an increased role, but one understands their goal of bigger and better when “I Like to Move It” overextends its welcome with two new renditions. Andy Richter reprises his Mort with even more similarity to Ice Age‘s Scrat; Cedric the Entertainer‘s Maurice is joined with Cohen’s Julien at the hip—onscreen significantly less than the last film; and Will.i.Am joins the party as a deep-voiced love interest to Gloria.
Cleaner and more direct, the filmmakers appear to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their characters a lot better in Madagascar 2. The jokes remain plentiful while allowing a story with real growth to exist despite being a lesser facsimile of Disney’s adventure in the Pride Lands. Stiller and Rock remain the stars, but their supporting cast bolster them by taking some weight off their shoulders with adequately distracting subplots. And while it still may ultimately be the penguin show for me, I can safely say I had a well-rounded good time. Not many sequels improve upon their predecessors and although the studio distances itself even further from the animal/human dynamic I still believe could make a great film, I can’t deny Dreamworks the success in finding a way to fix their problems and take their creation one step higher.
 (Left to right) The New Yorkers— Marty the zebra (CHRIS ROCK), Gloria the hippo (JADA PINKETT SMITH), Melman the giraffe (DAVID SCHWIMMER) and Alex the lion (BEN STILLER)—find themselves and the remnants of their plane crash landed on the vast plains of Africa in DreamWorks’ “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” which will be distributed by Paramount Pictures in November 2008. Photo credit: Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa ™ & © 2008 DreamWorks Animation L.L.C. All Rights Reserved. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa ™ & © 2008 DreamWorks Animation L.L.C. All Rights Reserved.
 A scene from animation comedy in DreamWorks’ “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.”
 Makunga (left, ALEC BALDWIN) accepts a gift from Alex (right, BEN STILLER) in DreamWorks’ “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.” Photo credit: Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa ™ & © 2008 DreamWorks Animation L.L.C. All Rights Reserved.