My father used to say that while he dreaded taking us to see whatever the newest Disney animated feature was, he ended up having a good time once he got there. I have a similar feeling about DreamWorks’ Madagascar movies. The style and pace of them have always struck me as being a bit too manic. I feel no great affinity for any of the main characters, though I find them amusing at times, and I must be the only one who doesn’t find the squad of genius penguins funny. Yet whenever the first two features in the series happen to be on in what is seemingly an endless loop of kid programming in our house, I end up sitting down, getting sucked in and having a hearty laugh or two.
Such was the case with the third entry in the series, subtitled Europe’s Most Wanted. I held out no great hope that directors Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon could get any more mileage out of Alex the lion (voice by Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer). After all, they were seemingly at peace, having returned to the place of their ancestors, the plains of Africa, at the end of the second film. What more could they want? Well, it seems as though Alex is still yearning for the limelight that was his at the New York zoo so he and his three faithful friends set out once more to get back to the Big Apple. Of course, they need the help of the penguins who’ve gone off to Monte Carlo on a gambling spree. Our clueless quartet crash this operation in the most spectacular manner, end up being chased by a seemingly superhuman French animal control officer, Captain Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand) and stumble upon a ragtag circus that they buy with the penguins’ winnings.
Up until this point, the movie is pretty standard fare with the occasional pun thrown our way and more than a few in-your-face moments to justify that surcharge you’ll have to pay for 3-D glasses. But once the setting shifts to the Circus Zaragoza and we meet its troupe, the film becomes inspired. All of the acts are horrible and Alex and company decide to help them fine tune their efforts, and even join in, in the hopes that an American promoter will discover them and take them to the states. This is easier said than done and the scenes of Marty’s, Melman’s and Gloria’s attempts to whip them into shape are genuinely hilarious.
The new characters are also a source of inspiration, yet two stand out above the herd. Vitaly (Bryan Cranston) is a Russian tiger who’s suffered a crisis of confidence when his trademark act – jumping through flaming metal hoops that get progressively smaller – goes horribly wrong, leaving him with low self-esteem, an addiction to borscht and, worst of all, brittle hair. The flashback that recounts this tragedy is a Dali-esque nightmare that’s as funny as it is audacious and proves to be a highlight of the movie. However, the best thing about the film is the addition of Stefano the sea lion as voiced by Martin Short. Sporting an Italian accent with his fractured English, he makes Chico Marx sound like an expert linguist, while his intelligence is, by his own admission, “a little bit below average.” His goofy expressions, innocently inappropriate comments and goodhearted nature make this character a delight, one that steals every scene he’s in and leaves us, like every good performer should, begging for more.
While the continued pursuit by DuBois proves to be a bore and the film overstays its welcome by about 10 minutes, Madagascar 3 ends up being an unexpected delight, as long as it sticks with the circus setting, something that could be extended if a fourth entry in the series is produced. If that comes to fruition, I have a feeling I’ll be able to put my initial feelings of dread aside, as long as it means I’ll be able to spend more time with Stefano.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at email@example.com.