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Into The Wild 

Madagascar's Talking Animals Move It, Move It One More Time

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Reference, self- and otherwise, is a huge part of modern-day animated films. If the kids are going to drag Mom and Dad to each and every talking-animal movie, you better give the grown-ups a little something to make them feel, you know, grown up. That's why the Shrek films are loaded with references to everything from The Godfather to Pulp Fiction. What better way to keep parents amused than with a Meet the Parents shout-out in Ice Age: The Meltdown?

Pixar, the classiest of the animation studios, typically stays away from such blatant nods, choosing instead to fill its films with such old-fashioned concepts as plot and storytelling. (Although Monsters, Inc. had its share of references, even alluding to its own stable of CGI hits, including Toy Story and A Bug's Life.) Plus, since Pixar is now part of the Disney family, they really can't skew the House of Mouse's flat-animation classics the way Shrek does, can they?

So, when Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (from the DreamWorks hit factory) opens with an homage to The Lion King, it's both expected and an easy reference. After all, both movies are set in Africa and star talking lions. The biggest surprise is that the filmmakers didn't make this connection in the first film.

Escape 2 Africa picks up where the other Madagascar left off. The four animals - lion Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller), zebra Marty (Chris Rock), giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) and hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith), who were raised in captivity and pampered in a New York City zoo all their lives - are still stranded in the wild and want to go home.

With the help of cross-dressing, egomaniacal lemur King Julien (Borat's Sacha Baron Cohen in full off-the-hook mode), a pair of uppity monkeys and a bunch of straight-talkin', take-charge penguins, the stars board a broken-down plane bound for N.Y.C.

The airplane crash-lands in Africa, and the passengers quickly adapt to their new surroundings - lush green fields filled with other lions, zebras, giraffes and hippos. For the first time, the formerly caged critters experience freedom and the joys of frolicking with their own kind … as long as they stay on the reserve. Years ago, we learn in the movie's prologue, Alex was lured away from his dad - the king of the animals, natch - and off the reserve by hunters. By chance, he ended up in New York.

Reunited with his family, Alex is named heir to the throne - if he can prove himself in a rite of a passage that involves fighting another lion. The theatrical Alex mistakenly assumes it's a dance contest and busts a West Side Story move on his confused opponent. Meanwhile, hypochondriac Melman becomes the village doctor, Gloria falls for a vain hippo and Marty, in one of the film's most clever gags, finds himself lost in a herd of similar-looking zebras, which all happen to sound like Chris Rock.

The first Madagascar picked up steam once the main characters got to Africa and the supporting cast - the penguins, monkeys and Cohen's lemur - was introduced. The most boring thing about the movie was the four stars, and the same goes for Escape 2 Africa. This is essentially Alex's coming-of-age story, with a few lessons about friendship and individuality thrown in for good measure. The film's only real laughs come when the penguins - who ambush unsuspecting tourists, in an unwelcome human element in this talking-animal flick - and King Julien are onscreen.

The movie dispenses with Julien's "I like to move it, move it" signature showstopper early, leaving him plenty of time to dress in drag, plot his takeover of New York and arrange an impromptu volcano sacrifice. Escape 2 Africa pops during these scenes (it's not hard to imagine Cohen ad-libbing his lines, with animators frantically working around them). The rest of the time it merely diverts the kids with the usual throwaway jokes about boogers and big butts, while Mom and Dad smirk knowingly at the Planet of the Apes and Twilight Zone references.

mgallucci@clevescene.com

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