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Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa   B-

DreamWorks Animation

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG
Directors: Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath
Writer: Etan Cohen, Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath
Cast: Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter, Bernie Mac.

Review by Rob Vaux

Douglas Adams coined the perfect term for Madagascar 2: mostly harmless. It exists as nothing more than a cash cow, here because the first film made a ton of money and the producers had no reason not to double down. The target demographic is remarkably undemanding, interested only in seeing cartoon animals act silly before Mom comes in and tells them to clean up their room. Critics can scoff very easily at such a product: the cynical merchandizing ploys, the storyline by committee, and the tired way it relies on simplistic lessons to cover up for its lack of inspiration all make for excellent targets.

Such complaints are hardly fair, however, when one considers that the film still achieves its very clearly defined goals. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa makes no claims to high art and WALL·E's Best Animated Feature Oscar is in no appreciable danger. If it feels routine and workmanlike, at least it goes about its work with a spring in its step and a smile on its face. Its imagery is bright and colorful, its comic timing seems on pace, and its vocal talents are having great fun with their respective jungle characters. A little leniency helps its small pleasures thrive, and there are certainly enough small pleasures here to cut it some slack.

If you smell a whiff of The Lion King in all of it, that's no accident. Madagascar 2 borrows liberally from Disney's ode to the African veldt, adding just enough new material to avoid accusations of plagiarism. Sharper satire might have helped its case tremendously, but directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath have no interest in being unduly nasty. Instead, they pack their quartet of Bronx Zoo refugees -- Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) -- off to the savannah of their birth, courtesy of a penguin-piloted cargo ship that may not be up to FAA regulations. They had hoped to get home after their adventures on Madagascar in the first movie, but penguins still can't fly and there's plenty waiting for them on the African game preserve where they crash land. As it turns out, Alex was plucked from his loving father's arms here as a cub, and grew up in the zoo with no knowledge of where he came from. Dad (voiced by the late Bernie Mac) is still head of the pride, but his scheming rival Makunga (Alec Baldwin) has his eyes on the throne. Though Alex is initially welcomed back, his previously pampered lifestyle makes him ill-equipped to thrive in the wilderness, which threatens papa's position and makes for as good a plot complication as any.

That central pillar comes festooned with dozens of teeny subplots, as every character onscreen receives his own little shtick to justify his appearance. Hypochondriac Melman lands a job as witch doctor to the other giraffes, while secretly pining for Gloria who has earned the attentions of the local two-ton lothario (voiced by will.i.am). Marty finds a herd of zebras who all look and act exactly like him (brushing aside the uncomfortable racial undertones with a few well-placed quips), and peripheral figures such as the lemur King Julian (Sacha Baron Cohen) and the ubiquitous penguins reiterate their basic routine just often enough to remind us that they're there.

Madagascar 2 pins its hopes on the collective success or failure of such notions, and though the bag is mixed, it generally tilts towards the positive. Much of it is contrived, and certain figures seem to be here solely to sell a few more toys. (Andy Richter's fatalistic Mort may have been a step too far and the reappearance of the little old lady who beat Alex up in the first film constitutes the weakest part of this go-round.) But it retains basic storytelling cohesion, and the directors still have an excellent knack for well-timed sight gags.

That may sound like damning with faint praise, and to some extent it is. Madagascar 2 remains a resolute babysitter movie: here to amuse for a brief period of time until the next cute parade of animals shows up. But its lively tone and irreverent spirit remain consistently amusing and the standard-issue bevy of pop-culture references will ensure that adults never get squirmy as well. Madagascar 2 is simply too cheerful to dislike; though its pleasures may be mild, it beats talking Chihuahuas any day of the week.

Review published 11.13.2008.

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