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Family Movie Review: Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

Madagascar3FamilyMovieReviewKernel Rating (out of 5): whole-popcorn-kernalwhole-popcorn-kernalwhole-popcorn-kernalwhole-popcorn-kernal

MPAA Rating: PG     Length: 85 minutes

Appropriate for ages 5+. Mild, cartoony violence and some playful potty humor, plus one or two near misses with profanity (e.g., “Bolshevik” substituted for a more off-color term for an untruth). Also, be prepared to walk away with one or more songs stuck in your head. (Yes, I get it—I’m a firework.)

Madagascar 3 is more of the same—the same charm, tongue-in-cheek tone and kid-friendly learning-and-growing. The occasional weak or outdated gag is balanced out by several inventive characters brought to life by some first-class voice talent.

By Jared Peterson

Since getting Back 2 Africa a couple years ago, the Madagascar gang—Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) and hippo-giraffe power couple Gloria and Melman (Jada Pinkett-Smith and David Schwimmer)—have been cooling their hooves on the steppes. But they still pine for the comforts of their “home” at the Central Park Zoo, and they once again decide to attempt a return.

Unfortunately, their ride back Stateside is a rickety bamboo airship piloted by mischievous monkeys and unstable penguins, who decide to ditch them and hit the casinos in Monte Carlo. The abandoned animals are forced to hitchhike to Europe, where quickly they run afoul of the authorities in the person of a maniacal animal control officer (the superb Frances McDormand, pulling off an outraaaageoousss Frahhhhnch acc-ssssentuh). To escape her clutches, they join a traveling circus led by a surly Russian tiger called Vitaly (Bryan Cranston). Alex convinces the suspicious Eur-animals that he and his friends are circus folk themselves; they’re welcomed on board on the condition that they share their skills and [jazz-hands] put on a show!

The ensuing tour of continental capitals is, of course, also a journey of self-discovery. Alex fumbles, then finds his role as the crew’s leader, while Marty pursues his dream of flying, Melman and Gloria work together to master a high-wire act that symbolizes their relationship. Vitaly, shamed and sidelined by a botched hoop-jumping trick years before, learns to trust himself and others. (Truth is, this crew may be running out of things to learn—only time and a Madagascar 4 will tell.)

Any parent who has sat through more than two viewings of an animated children’s movie knows that voices often make the difference between mind-scrambling torture and, at the least, mind-numbing acceptance. The actors of Madagascar are uniformly adept at lending texture and charm to their characters. Of the returning cast, Chris Rock stands out for sheer exuberance and commitment to silliness. (Viewers can decide for themselves whether performances from Rock and Sasha Baron Cohen, who plays a sassy South Asian lemur, play as fun-loving caricatures or wander into less-than-flattering stereotypes.) But of all the players, new and old, Martin Short is the undisputed master as Stefano, a sweetly dim sea lion who’s all blubber and heart. 

The film was helmed by veteran Madagascar directors Eric Darnell and Tm McGrath with Monsters vs. Aliens director Conrad Vernon. Screenwriting credit is split between Darnell and Noah Baumbach. Wait… Noah Baumbach?! Yes, it’s true—the man who brought you the cleverly depressing Margot at the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale also took a pass at this talking animals story, though this indie art presence barely alters the reliable deadpan humor provided for parents’ sake.

Though 3-D technology has gone from trend to tool in Hollywood, it is still a hit-or-miss affair. But Madagascar 3 is one of only a few 3-D movies I’ve seen that I suspect might not be as good in two dimensions or less. (2009’s Coraline is another standout, and though I missed it in theaters, I’ve also heard How to Train Your Dragon is the 3-D flick to beat.) One seemingly simple key to success is not to send things flying at the camera, but rather send the camera flying at things. Thus, a chase through and over the streets of Monte Carlo and two large-scale circus numbers are sights to see—if you’re child’s head is big enough to keep the glasses on.

Just about any film with computer-animated talking animals can divert or occupy an young audience for 90 minutes; far fewer have what it takes to weather repeated viewings with the whole family. While not as touching or challenging as WALL-E or Toy Story 3, this and the other Madagascar films have proven their staying power.

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