Eric D. Snider

Madagascar

I will tell you up front that the kids who were in the audience when I saw "Madagascar" seemed to enjoy it, and maybe that's all you need to know. But if you're interested in knowing what's wrong with the movie, and why it's a soulless, ill-conceived, reference-laden post-"Shrek" free-for-all, read on.

Set in the Central Park Zoo, "Madagascar" starts out being the story of the zebra, Marty (voice of Chris Rock), who on his 10th birthday starts to wonder what it's like out in the "wild," which he either never experienced or doesn't remember. His zoo pals -- confident lion Alex (Ben Stiller), hypochondriac giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) and non-descript hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) -- are not nearly as introspective. They love their gig at the zoo and think the penguins, who have been plotting an escape, are psychotic.

Marty wants to get back to his roots, though, and one night escapes from the zoo and emerges at Grand Central Station, hoping to catch a train to Connecticut, where he has heard there is some wild to be found. (If rich Protestants count as "wild," then I guess he's in luck.) The other animals bust out to stop him from embarking on this mad endeavor, and soon they are all recaptured, tranquilized, and put in crates bound for a wildlife preserve in Kenya. It is hinted that the humans and their news media took the animals' escape to mean they were unhappy at the zoo, and the animal-rights activists convinced the zoo to release them.

Whatever. The important thing is, through a series of events that defy even cartoon logic, the four principals wind up on the island of Madagascar -- the true wild, with no people anywhere -- and discover they are ill-equipped to deal with it. The local lemurs, led by King Julian (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his doubtful sidekick Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer), welcome them and share a disturbing bit of information: In the jungle, animals don't eat food given to them by zookeepers. They eat EACH OTHER.

Then the film becomes Alex's story, as he starts to feel his primal instincts and is worried he will devour his friends. Can he return to the Central Park Zoo? Is that what Marty, Melman and Gloria want? How will they fend for themselves in the wild?

The movie's first flaw is that it is unfocused, introducing two protagonists, Marty and Alex, and then inadequately covering either of them. They are not hero and sidekick; they are dual heroes, both important but both neglected by Mark Burton and Billy Frolick's joke-heavy, unstructured screenplay.

Next is the movie's failure to create a consistent world. We have animals who know how telephones work, can read newspapers and train schedules, can operate an ocean freighter -- but don't know that Alex's nightly steak dinners are made out of other animals? You have two choices in a movie like his. Either the animals can behave strictly like animals do when they are in the human world (as in "Finding Nemo"), or they can be anthropomorphized and develop human skills (as in Bugs Bunny cartoons). "Madagascar" tries to have it both ways, making them savvy one minute and ignorant the next, depending on the needs of the story.

But the film's greatest detriment is its lack of a point. It introduces all these great existential dilemmas -- Can I eat a fellow animal? What is my true nature? -- and then weasels out of giving any real resolution to them. (My apologies to any weasels who may be reading this.)

Alex's solution for helping the lemurs is to scare off the hyenas who feed on them. But now what are the hyenas supposed to eat? Is it that we don't care, as long as it's not the cute lemurs? Is eating an animal only wrong if it's one with an adorable character voice? Is being a carnivore inherently bad? Apparently not, because Alex still is one. So what's he going to eat? Well, the penguins introduce him to fish. So is THAT the point? That meat-eating is evil, but fish don't count as meat? How is Alex going to get fish on a regular basis? Are the penguins going to catch it for him?

And what about Marty's desire to roam free in the wild? Were the animals better off in the zoo? Maybe they were, since they've been domesticated and can't cut it on their own. But do they realize that now? How would they return to New York anyway, with the freighter they traveled on now out of fuel?

I wanted to enjoy the film. I really did. I overlooked the fact that Ben Stiller and David Schwimmer are essentially the same person and should not be cast in the same film. And I laughed a number of times, particularly in the first act, with the loony escape sequence, and the erudite monkeys who speak of flinging poo at Tom Wolfe, and the melodramatic penguins who talk like characters from an espionage caper. But once "Madagascar" arrives on its titular island, the story falls apart. It writes itself into more corners than it can write its way out of, hoping that if it throws enough pop-cultural references at us -- "Cast Away," "Planet of the Apes," etc. -- we won't notice how frantically it's trying to figure out what to do.

Grade: C

Rated PG, some mild crude humor

1 hr., 26 min.

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