THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Madagascar is the story of Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller), a lion in New York City’s Central Park Zoo. In his own way, Alex is something like a rock star, entertaining school children daily with his “ferocious” behavior. Every day he gets fed some nice juicy steak, and he’s pampered by the zoo staff. Alex’s best friend is a zebra named Marty (Chris Rock). Having just celebrated his 10th birthday, Marty is feeling a little lost. He dreams of leaving the zoo and entering the wild, where he can explore new areas and have new experiences. After a failed escape attempt leads to chaos inside Grand Central Station, all of the zoo’s animals are packed into crates, placed on a ship, and transferred to a different zoo. During transport, the crates of Alex and Marty fall overboard along with those carrying their other pals: a hypochondriac giraffe named Melman (David Schwimmer) and a sassy hippo called Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith).

The foursome winds up in Madagascar, although they initially think they’re in San Diego. Once they realize their true location, only Marty is happy; the others want to get back to the city, where the environment is more familiar. While working out a plan, the group meets up with a group of lemurs. King Julian (Sasha Baron Cohen, a.k.a. Ali G) thinks that Alex might be helpful in scaring off some predators who have been threatening the lemurs. His right-hand lemur, Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer), isn’t so sure the lion can be trusted. His fears play out when Alex, deprived of meat, suddenly turns savage. Marty, Melman, and Gloria speed up their escape plans to get Alex out of Madagascar before he eats anyone.

In a very humorous subplot, a group of zoo penguins hijacks the transport ship in an attempt to reach Antarctica. The animals behave like they’re in an old war movie. They go on covert missions, talk in two-fisted dialogue, and formulate complex battle plans to foil anyone who gets in their way.

The animation in Madagascar is really a joy to look at. The backgrounds of New York City and the jungle look incredibly realistic, while the characters have a more stylized look. Many recent computer-animated movies – such as Finding Nemo and The Polar Express - have successfully made their characters look realistic. I liked the change of pace here. The animals are all sort of boxy and angular. You can tell what they are, but the conceptualized look gives each of them added personality. As has become the custom, lots of big name stars do the voices. That can be a curse or a blessing depending on the film, but it works here. David Schwimmer is particularly funny as the neurotic giraffe, and Sasha Baron Cohen is hilarious as the lemur. He first appears onscreen singing that annoying dance-music anthem “I Like to Move It.” The combination of good voice acting and imaginative animation makes the scene a high point of the movie.

It is crucial in today’s family film to incorporate enough silly humor to please the kids but to also throw in some jokes for the adults. Madagascar succeeds on both counts. I especially appreciated the subtle references to other movies that are thrown in. Astute grownups will catch nods to Cast Away, Planet of the Apes and (my favorite) American Beauty. Also earning laughs are a couple of monkeys who spend most of their time talking about throwing poo on people. The kids, obviously, will love that little bit.

On the scale of computer-generated features, Madagascar falls on the high side of the middle. It doesn’t achieve the outright hilarity of Shrek 2, the majesty of The Polar Express, or the sheer story-telling inspiration of The Incredibles. On the other hand, it is fresher and funnier than Shark Tale. To put it a different way, Madagascar is solid family entertainment - not the best or most groundbreaking of the genre, but certainly an enjoyable movie that is worth catching. A good family film is always welcome in the marketplace, and this one provides 80 minutes of reliable fun.

( out of four)

Madagascar is rated PG for mild language, crude humor and some thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes.

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