Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
Director: Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath
Screenwriters: Mark Burton, Billy Frolick
Starring: Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, David Schwimmer
In a year when most films have stringently performed to expectations, Madagascar is a precious pleasant surprise. What a wonderful movie this is, so full of the funny, the charming and the bizarre, so clever and eager to take advantage of the possibilities of CGI animation. We are still in a phase where even the best computer-animated films aim squarely for the “wow” factor, attempting to use the incredible technology to create images of stark physical beauty or impressive scope. Madagascar is as visually impressive as the next movie in the genre, but it does more than merely wow: it makes the animation drive the comedy. The screenplay is amusing enough, to be sure, but the source of most of the laughs is the way the characters are drawn: their expressions, their gestures, the speed with which they move. It is a brilliantly directed film.
Take a scene early in the film: Alex the Lion (voice of Ben Stiller), Gloria the Hippopotamus (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) have escaped from the Central Park Zoo in search of their friend Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), who has been afflicted with an inexplicable wanderlust. They take the subway (yes, the human subway) to Grand Central Station, where they have to scramble past an oblivious street musician — a drummer, as it happens. There is a moment when the animals furiously scramble past the man, who is drumming away as if nothing were happening. Chaos ensues; drums, sticks and giraffes go flying. This could be a typical slapstick maelstrom, but the split-second timing and blinding speed lift it far beyond that. By the time Melman winds up with a cymbal atop his head, which is promptly crashed by the still enthusiastically swinging drummer, I was doubled over with laughter. And the entire sequence takes a matter of a few seconds.
This sort of comedic aplomb is by far the film’s most valuable asset, and I could list a dozen more examples of potentially mediocre sequences lifted to greatness or near-greatness with animation (essentially) alone. Instead, I will talk about a few other things worth mentioning. Foremost among these is the sheer daffiness with which the characters and their situations are crafted. I have previously complained about movies — usually “family films” — that are set in an animal or otherwise fantastic world, but in which the animals (or creatures) are essentially humans taking on animal form, with human problems and human solutions (see: Finding Nemo, Shark Tale. The same could likely be said of Madagascar, but the film is so deeply entrenched in satire and high absurdity that it ceases to matter. There is a group of penguins, all I believe voiced by one of the film’s directors, who scheme and prance around with hilarious, deadpan gusto, eventually commandeering a giant freight boat and, I imagine, ruling the ocean waters. There are also two monkeys, one of whom is brilliant, while the other is also brilliant, but for some reason can only use sign language. Meanwhile the main characters essentially take on the personalities of their actors, for better or worse. It’s nuts, and has nothing to do with animals, but it’s so zany and hilarious that this becomes not a criticism but merely an observation.
I liked the plot, too, which rambles around somewhat aimlessly at first, but finds an outstanding focus in the last act, presenting a conflict that is involving and even somewhat poignant, at least until all is resolved in a typically off-kilter way. Though I suspected that Madagascar may go in the direction that it does, I also thought that it would be too risky a road for a movie as harmless as this one to take. And indeed, the concept could have been milked for a lot more emotional heft, but that is probably just not the film’s intent.
Ultimately, Madagascar feels more like a revue than a movie, and the 86 minutes spent in the theater are quickly forgotten. But if the film is slight — it doesn’t even have the weight of the similarly loopy The Emperor’s New Groove — the talent behind it is formidable. This is Dreamworks Animation’s crowning achievement, better even than the beloved Shrek films.