Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted
I have not been a fan of the “Madagascar” animated films, but the third one won me over. Perhaps it’s a result of my becoming a parent, but I see now how the franchise’s combination of kid-friendly boingy action, annoyingly catchy musical numbers and cutesy, simplistic life lessons is never dull to the kindergarten-and-down crowd.
After the packed screening I attended, literally dozens of tots were shaking their booties in the aisles as they imitated the tunes, especially a particularly egregious ditty called “Afro Circus,” written and sung by Chris Rock. It consists of just those two words with a few “polka dot” throw-ins, but apparently to wee ones this is sublime comedic styling.
By all rights, we should judge our entertainment by a higher standard than just keeping our offspring distracted for an hour-and-a-half. But that’s the yardstick by which “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” operates, and judged in those terms, it’s slickly effective.
As the story opens, the gang from the zoo finds itself stuck in Africa, wanting to get back home to New York City. Their friends the penguins, who talk like spies out of the “Mad Men” era, have ditched them to play high rollers at the casinos in Monte Carlo, so that’s where they follow.
The group dynamic remains virtually unchanged since the birth of the franchise. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) is the ostensible leader, who puts on a brave face but has a neurotic craving for attention. His best bud, Marty the zebra (Rock), is the goofy sidekick who sometimes yearns to be leader of the pack. Hypochondriac giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) and groovy hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) have hooked up into an interspecies couple, the sheer mechanics of which beggars the imagination.
While in Monte Carlo, they run afoul of Captain Chantel DuBois, head of the animal control unit. Voiced by Frances McDormand, DuBois makes for a dastardly Ahab-like villain who chases the gang all over the globe, jurisdiction be danged. With her hook-sharp nose, roomy hips and squared shoulders, DuBois is a formidable enemy.
Alex and the gang end up hiding out with the Circus Zaragoza, a motley collection of animals whose act has grown stale. Passing themselves off as fellow circus critters, the four friends resolve to add some Cirque du Soleil extravagance into the drab proceedings.
The new partners include Stefano, an exuberantly Italian sea lion (Martin Short) who dreams of being considered of average intelligence; Gia (Jessica Chastain), a feline trapeze artist who rests her hopes — and affections — on Alex; and Vitaly (an excellent Bryan Cranston), a Russian daredevil tiger and one-time star of the show, who got burned performing his signature act.
I should also mention Julien, the lemur king voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen, who’s back to sing his “move it, move it” song again and supply some mildly suggestive humor. The computer-generated animation is a smash, particularly a couple of the big circus show numbers, which grow pleasantly psychedelic for awhile.
Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, who co-directed the first two movies, are joined by Conrad Vernon for a threesome that knows this material and its limitations, and focuses on what it can do best. Darnell also handles the screenplay, joined by indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach, best known for eclectic fare like “The Squid and the Whale” and “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” (Someone need a paycheck?)
I’m not sure if I’d call “Madagascar 3” good bad movie-making or bad good. Either way, I grudgingly admire the way it expertly achieves its own low expectations. This positive review is not so much a recommendation as a surrender.