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Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa / ** ½ (PG)Posted Tuesday, November 11, 2008, at 2:32 PM
Lions and zebras and hippos and giraffes, oh my! Alex and friends are back for another wild romp in "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa".
I often use phrases like "story structure", "character development", and "thematic elements" when writing a review. I use these technical aspects of storytelling to defend my point of view on a movie, but the basis on which I initially judge a film is my genuine enjoyment of the experience of watching it. Sometimes I have to think long and hard on the technical aspects of a film to determine just why I liked it or disliked it. Sometimes I can hardly explain my feelings at all.
In my review of the animated movie "Madagascar" in 2005, I did not invoke any of the above phrases, but merely claimed it was "a hell of a lot of fun." After reading other critics' lukewarm reviews on the film, I thought I might have been mistaken about it. But upon seeing it again, I still found I really liked it. Perhaps that is merely because the lemur tribe in it claims to worship "the New York Giants!" Well, there aren't any references to the Big Blue in the sequel.
I find it difficult to pin point just what the differences are between the two movies, but I didn't like the second one nearly as much. It is as if the directing team of Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath--the same filmmakers responsible for the first movie--had their new screenwriter Etan Cohen ("Tropic Thunder") take all the successful elements of the first film and just reproduce them in a new story. That isn't such an unusual notion for a sequel, but it always seems to produce the same lackluster results.
The story starts in flashback, providing backstory on Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller, "Tropic Thunder") and how this lion wound up as the star attraction of the Central Park Zoo in New York. Then it catapults us--in more way than one--right back to where the first movie left off with Alex and friends trying to escape from the island country of Madagascar. This scene is a good example of the rehashed elements. Suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of a going away party where the lemur king and disciples from the original movie are singing the mantra, "I like to movie, move it." The fact that all these characters that we would've had to see the original to remember are singing this club song is supposed to be enough to draw us back into another adventure with them.
Following another scheme by the crazy commando penguins--the scene stealers of the original--Alex, Marty the zebra (Chris Rock, "Bee Movie"), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinckett Smith, "The Women"), and the neurotic giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer of "Friends" fame) with King Julian (Sacha Baron Cohen, "Sweeny Todd") and his right-hand-lemur Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer, "Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins") in tow do escape Madagascar, only to make it as far as Africa. Coincidentally they end up on the same animal preserve where Alex's father Zuba (Bernie Mac, "Soul Men") is the king of the pride.
The main story follows Alex and involves a challenger to Zuba's claim as king, Makunga (voiced by Alec Baldwin, NBC's "30 Rock"). Makunga uses Alex in a scheme to dethrone Zuba. Cohen makes no strides for originality in either Zuba of Makunga's characters. Zuba is the typical disappointed father when he discovers his son is more of a performer than a fighter. And Makunga could be swapped out with just about any animal villain in a cartoon going as far back as Scar from "The Lion King".
The other animals break off from each other and join their familial herds where they find that individualism is the lesson of the day, and keeping hold of your individualism is difficult without friends. Gloria falls for the stud hippo Moto Moto (hip-hop artist Will.i.am) "so sexy you have to say his name twice." Melman becomes the giraffe witch doctor to save them all from suffering every ailment under the sun in their sick-holes. And Marty finds he still can't tell whether he is black with white stripes or white with black stripes in a zebra society where everyone talks and plays in unison.
Even those wacky penguins don't work without some humans to confound. The filmmakers do provide them with a group of tourists lead by the old lady in Grand Central Station from the first movie. Even though the jokes provide some chuckles here and there, they taste stale.
"Madagascar" provided some wonderful lessons about knowing who you are and accepting your own individualism. It is fitting that the sequel should continue those themes, but by sticking all the characters into very similar situations that all teach the same lesson, it shows the creators behind this franchise to be lacking in the fresh ideas department. If we're all supposed to be true to ourselves, maybe "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" also needs to escape its bonds with its lineage.
Be sure to check out extra features for this review and catch up on this year's Horrorfest at A Penny in the Well.
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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.