Animal Crackers

In Madagascar, the wild things romp, then roam.

Smart gags and CGI are the big draws here.
Smart gags and CGI are the big draws here.
It's fair to say that Madagascar, directed by one man who made Antz and another who used to work on Ren & Stimpy, is virtually plot-free -- nothing more, really, than a scene or two from The Great Escape cut and pasted into an episode of Survivor. Its threadbare story line, about four animals (a lion, a zebra, a giraffe, and a hippo) who escape from the Central Park Zoo and wind up stranded on a jungle island, sticks with you about as long as a small box of popcorn; your stomach will growl for more substantial nourishment by movie's end. Yet after the chum that was Shark Tale, from the same DreamWorks animation division, better a skimpy plot riddled with smart gags than a dense story sunk by leaden jokes that drown on the ocean floor. Madagascar's worth sitting through, if only for a bit involving caged monkeys who want to see Tom Wolfe speak at Lincoln Center just to fling their own poop on his white suit -- the fantasy of anyone who just got through reading I Am Charlotte Simmons.

Directors Eric Darnell -- whose Antz was DreamWorks' first and still best foray into computer-generated animation -- and Tom McGrath infuse standard-issue bedtime storytelling with a wry, dark-comic sensibility. Any movie featuring a scene involving animal tranquilizers, a kaleidoscopic light show, and Sammy Davis Jr. crooning "The Candy Man" needn't even pretend it's for the wee ones; this is Fear and Loathing territory, time to smoke 'em if you got 'em and pray that the laser-light show's second on the double bill. Darnell and McGrath, tossing in old Twilight Zone riffs, Wild Kingdom sound bites, and archaic pop-culture nods sure to make Grandpa giggle in his grave, deliver gags better suited to the tastes of parents than to those of children, who can and will be satisfied by mere pretty pictures of silly animals. It's a vast improvement over the serious silliness of Shrek, which seemed to think a Matrix gag passed for good screenwriting.

Madagascar, with voices provided by Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, and David Schwimmer, arrives with simple, almost old-fashioned aspirations: to be nothing more or less than a big-screen, computer-fabricated version of a Tex Avery cartoon -- Warner Bros. crudity for a generation raised on Pixar fabulousness. Unlike most CG cartoons, which demand that you gush over the sumptuousness of their artificial versions of reality, Madagascar's in too much of a rush to even bother; it looks great, but it's supposed to, and it knows that's just the icing, not the whole cake. So it's bright and spry, giggly and bouncy, but also cuddly, with occasional touches of cruelty -- a movie in which best friends, when let loose in the wild, suddenly realize that one's a little higher on the food chain. Its most interesting characters are the marginal figures, who would have starred in their own cartoons long ago: the mutinous band of penguins who hack a computer and hijack a cargo ship, the dopey native lemurs (who look like gremlins and include among their furry ranks Sacha Baron Cohen and Cedric the Entertainer) for whom life on the island is one big party, and the laconic monkeys who sneak coffee and The New York Times from the trash can. They're welcome wisecrackers among dull straight men, there to infuse the honey with a little arsenic to make it palatable.

The movie belongs to its supporting characters -- especially Cohen, who voices Julien as though his Ali G. had snorted a little too much curry powder; the leads are just there to sell tickets. In fact, Madagascar succeeds in spite of its cast -- yet one more all-star roster of voices signed not because they're perfect for their respective parts, but because their names look good on a poster otherwise populated by cartoon wildlife.

Chris Rock, as the zebra named Marty who longs for a life outside of captivity and lands his pals on the sparse shores of Madagascar, only proves once more that as an actor, he has the delivery of a straitjacketed stand-up comic stuck trying to find the funny in someone else's words. He's alternately too sincere and too shticky, trying too hard to liven up moribund dialogue (his idea of hipping things up is to refer to things as "crackalackin'"). Between this performance and his appearance in The Longest Yard (also opening this week), Rock's stuck in a hard place: The movies want him, but then betray him like a spiteful lover the moment he steps into their embrace.

Ben Stiller as Alex, a lion who loves the affection of crowds who feed him applause and the attention of zookeepers who feed him the finest steaks, is at best problematic, because it's one more role that feels like all the others in his ever-growing line of petulant putzes. Long gone is the knowing parodist of The Ben Stiller Show, replaced by a guy who now stars only in movies that require him to bray like a toddler who doesn't ever get what he wants. The same could be said of David Schwimmer as a pill-popping hypochondriac giraffe named Melman, only more so; imagine Ross Gellar, turned up to 11.

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