There’s a nuttier, generally more diverting entertainment creeping, crawling and waddling along the edges of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa than the larger one lollygagging on screen. This central story of this new animated movie, written by Etan Cohen and the directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, involves Alex (Ben Stiller in low gear), a lion who in 2005 journeyed from New York captivity (ie, a zoo) to the jungle in the first Madagascar with the usual mix of celebrity-voiced racial and ethnic stereotypes: a motor-mouthed zebra, Marty (Chris Rock); a nice if woefully neurotic giraffe, Melman (David Schwimmer); and the token girl, a hippo with a sizeable caboose named Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith).
Three years later Alex and company are literally ejected from Madagascar in a rickety plane operated by a penguin crew that’s led by the supremely confident, quite possibly insane Skipper (McGrath), a sleek ball of feathers and fat who simultaneously brings to mind Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, John Wayne and a cue ball. Along with his two sidekicks, a couple of stooges called Kowalski and Private (Chris Miller and Christopher Knights), Skipper keeps first the plane and then — after crash-landing on an African savannah — the movie moving with his deadpan delivery and with some surrealistic nonsense involving a barrel of laughing monkeys. (I see a big future for Mason and his silent partner, Phil, the two-chimp team whose lah-di-dah manners and sartorial flair recall that of the 1970s television ape, Lancelot Link.)
With King Julien, a deranged lemur whose daft non sequiturs and bon mots are dropped and dribbled with dexterity and control by an unrecognizable Sacha Baron Cohen (at times sounding like a less frantic Robin Williams), the penguins and chimps could have skittered into something memorable. Alas, the filmmakers, who clearly are having as much fun visually with these scene stealers as they are aurally, stick by the contemporary American animation playbook: Alex has a dream (gotta dance), father issues (with Bernie Mac as the pride of the pride) and a requisite baddie rival (Alec Baldwin, who else?). There’s also an unfunny old lady with a Jackie Mason accent who deserves a violently cruel end, but this is a PG movie.
MADAGASCAR: ESCAPE 2 AFRICA
DIRECTED BY:Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath
WITH THE VOICES OF: Ben Stiller (Alex), Chris Rock (Marty), David Schwimmer (Melman), Jada Pinkett Smith (Gloria), Sacha Baron Cohen (King Julien), Cedric the Entertainer (Maurice), Andy Richter (Mort), Bernie Mac (Zuba), Sherri Shepherd (Alex’s Mom), Alec Baldwin (Makunga), Tom McGrath (Skipper), Conrad Vernon (Mason), will.i.am (Moto Moto)
RUNNING TIME:89 minutes
TAIWAN RELEASE: Today
Darnell and McGrath don’t appear especially committed to these stale conceits and character dynamics, which may explain why they spend so much time playing with the penguins, chimps and King Julien, who may not roar but certainly rules. There’s true playfulness here whenever this wacky animal pack takes over, a suggestion of delirium echoed by the zippy, at times overly zooming camerawork with its roller-coaster dips and swoops. And while the filmmakers throw the camera around almost as much as Brian de Palma does, every so often they slow down, giving you a chance to scan the softly muted colors of the landscapes and explore how the exaggerated character designs create a nice visual contrast with the photorealistic details and flourishes.
It’s unsurprising that Alex’s mane registers as more realistic than any of his words or emotions, but it’s also a bummer. Escape 2 Africa is good enough in patches to make its distracting star turns, storybook cliches and stereotypes harder to take than they would be in a less enjoyable movie. Casting Stiller and Schwimmer may sear their brands onto under-age cerebral cortices but does nothing for the movie. And, really, did the hippo (voiced by will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas) who courts Gloria with a low rumble and a suggestive shimmy have to sound like Barry White rather than, say, Marc Anthony or Justin Timberlake? I laughed, but honestly, if this country can vote colorblind surely its movie studios can animate colorblind too. (Can’t they?)