Survival of the Flippest
It’s quips and quandaries for the animals of Madagascar
by Jared Peterson
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (PG), a bouncy and buoyant sequel to the 2005 hit Madagascar, follows a menagerie of unlikely animal heroes on their continued quest for their proper place in the world. In the first film, the once-pampered denizens of the New York Zoo—Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett-Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer)—went from mild life to wildlife when stranded on the titular island with a host of kooky animals. At the opening of this installment, they’re preparing to say goodbye to their new friends and return to the comforts of civilization. But a jury-rigged airframe, commanded by a gaggle of overconfident penguins, can carry them only part of the way. Gravity and poor engineering conspire to deposit them in their ancestral home—the wide open plains of an African nature preserve—where they face all new challenges. Alex gets tangled up in parental expectations, Marty deals with a loss of uniqueness in a herd of his own kind, and Gloria and Melman stumble around on the path to true love.
The visuals here are quite impressive: subtle facial expressions, sweeping vistas, and the most realistic computerized rendering of water yet achieved in a film. The story leans a bit heavily on the familiar voices and well-known personas of its voice actors, though it’s hardly anything new to make use of these to bring in patrons and to speed the story along. Like Toy Story, Shrek and many other modern fairy tales, Escape 2 Africa is aggressively inclusive. Younger kids will delight in the cartoon zaniness, while older members of the “Adult Swim” and YouTube generations will dig the dry wisecracking and hyperkinetic slapstick. Parents are authorized to enjoy these as well; but for adult consumption the filmmakers serve up a hearty helping of knowing asides, offhanded cultural references and veiled social commentary. (My personal favorite was a scene involving collective-bargaining negotiations between the penguins and a union of disgruntled monkeys. Ah, labor humor.)
Keep in mind that this is a cartoon fantasy—in the mold of “Tom and Jerry” and the Warner Bros. shorts—where physical comedy is pursued as a kind of extreme sport. Characters inflict and endure all kinds of brutal punishments, and emerge, unscathed, to fight another day. The penguins are especially quick to violence (oh, how I’ve longed to write that sentence). They’re at it even before the opening titles, going so far as to bum-rush that kid who loafs on the edge of the crescent moon in the Dreamworks logo. But there is nothing quite so fearsome as the wrath of Nana (Elisa Gabrielli), a waddling grandma with a bloodthirsty grudge against “bad kitties” and other animals. She wanders from her safari tour and into a series of vicious slugfests (she and her attackers each lose teeth) and head-on collisions (at one point she’s thrown through a windshield). This bizarre blood feud is either wantonly inappropriate… or utterly inspired. I vote for the latter—in my experience, there are few situations, in art or in life, which cannot be improved by adding penguins and/or the feisty elderly.
There are a couple of near misses with a hunting rifle, and a switchblade is flipped threateningly by (again) a short-fused penguin. Thankfully, potty humor is largely absent. The characters have simple tastes in off-color language: half a dozen uses of the word “butt”, a pun on the word “nuts”. Careful sound editing masks an a-word (“Kiss your [loud noise] goodbye!”) There are nipple tweaks, nose picks and other childish pranks, and the depiction of lemur cross-dressing and interspecies dating may offend the sensibilities of the socially conservative or skittishly Californian.
At a November 8th screening, audiences were treated to previews of three dog-related films: Marley and Me (not yet rated), about “the worst dog in the world;” Bolt (PG), about a deluded animal actor; and Hotel for Dogs (not yet rated), which I think is self-explanatory. Also featured were The Pink Panther 2 (PG), with Steve Martin failing to keep his balance; and The Tale of Despereaux (not yet rated), about an uncommonly brave mouse. Finally, we have Monsters vs. Aliens (not yet rated), a new addition to the list of movies I wish I had thought of.
Jared Peterson has yet to achieve alpha-male status in his herd. His attempts are chronicled at proweirdo.blogspot.com.