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Madagascar   B+

DreamWorks Animation

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath
Writers: Mark Burton, Billy Frolick, Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath
Cast: Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter.

Review by Sean O'Connell

Once word gets out about the Madagascar penguins, studios may stop throwing bags of money at major celebrities in an attempt to glamorize their animated efforts. DreamWorks Animation's summertime fishes-out-of-the-pond adventure convinces four marquee talents to lend their voices to a lion (Ben Stiller), zebra (Chris Rock), giraffe (David Schwimmer), and hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) living in the Central Park Zoo. But it's the four scheming penguins voiced by the movie's animators and director that run away with the show.

As the main attraction in the zoo's daily display, Alex the Lion (Stiller) loves the adoration and subsequent pampering that comes with being the facility's top cat. His neighbor, Marty (Rock), thinks the grass would be much greener in a faraway pasture and fantasizes about escaping to the wild. The penguins (clearly my favorite) clue Marty in on an escape route and the monochromatic wanderer leaps to Manhattan's streets. Now it's up to Alex and his friends -- Melman (Schwimmer), the hypochondriac giraffe, and Gloria (Pinkett Smith), the no-nonsense hippo -- to retrieve their wayward buddy and return him to the zoo.

Madagascar scripters Mark Burton and Billy Frolick plaster multilayered puns and sight gags into their escapade. A fierce sense of Big Apple pride leads to misinformed (but entertaining) swipes at New Jersey, Connecticut, and San Diego. Cinema buffs will drink in uproarious movie references, which hit with the frequency of a tennis ball at Wimbledon. They range from the classic (Chariots of Fire) to the contemporary (American Beauty) to the cult (Charlton Heston in The Planet of the Apes, the movie's funniest jab).

The story escapes its own confines when the characters trade the urban jungle for the actual jungle -- Alex's rescue efforts land the foursome on a ship bound for the shores of Madagascar. The island they land on is occupied by Furby-esque lemur animals who live in fear of the hideous fousa creatures. Meatier narrative lines discuss how the wild completely changes one of our heroes, an obvious critique on suburbanites fleeing the comfy confines of Manhattan.

My theory about unrecognizable voices takes nothing away from the A-listers. Their vocals imprint and shape each character to the point where it's impossible to hear the deliveries of the four lead animals without picturing the actors providing the sounds. Stiller doesn't just give Alex a voice; he lends the royal beast his well-defined personality. The lion's self-centered with a touch of neurosis attributed to the Upper East Side of New York. Marty, with Rock's influence, mixes humor with hip-hop, Dogg-pound catchphrases ("This place is off the chiz-ain!").

The animation is consistent with DreamWorks' oeuvre. The design is somehow both blocky and gorgeous. The animals are glorified stick-figure characters interacting with knockout backgrounds, lush portraits teeming with detail. For those who paid to laugh, there's just enough penguin action to keep you smiling throughout. And don't be surprised if you leave the theater hungry for a steak.

Review published 05.21.2005.

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