In the 1990s, publishing houses like Simon & Schuster claimed to be actively seeking “character-driven” children’s manuscripts. Presumably this meant that colorful protagonists were more important than thematic ideas or complicated narratives. This clearly also is the case in the Madagascar animation franchise, and especially here in the sequel, which begins with some previously unknown back-story about Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), then fast-forwards to the current comical plights of Marty the hipster zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the hypochondriac giraffe (David Schwimmer), and Gloria the desirable hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith). En route back to their Manhattan zoo home, our memorable irregulars crash into an animal reserve, simultaneously encountering a plot development lifted gently from The Lion King. Though derivative, the menagerie invoked a veritable mlee of audience participation at the screening I attended. “The lion is in a box,” wailed one little girl. Suffice to say, the thwarted Out of Africa Odyssey culminates in the strong assertion of true character over stifling parental expectations. What do mom and dad know anyway?
The chief drawback to this cartoon ensemble approach simply is its shortage of originality or inherently dramatic conflict. The story literally has nowhere to go since the animals find paradise 10 minutes into the movie, forcing the tale to fall back on ideas left over from Disney and running jokes from the first installment. It’s a deficit also provable by the audience: Once the kooky cast ran through its adorable intros, the story dawdled and kids in the theater started squirming and chatting with each other, providing critical commentary before the show was over.
Yet this is cartoon fun for a girl or a boy-and maybe even a parent. The script by Etan (not Ethan) Cohen, who also wrote Tropic Thunder, is filled with little flourishes and knowing glances. “Is that Vivaldi?” asks Melman, wandering into the penguin-piloted jet’s first-class compartment. The final wedding scene makes the idea of gay marriage seem tame. This is not sophisticated animation, though. For that we have Pixar, with its rich texts and its strong tradition of excellence-driven ‘toons.