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Madagascar Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

It's strange-after watching Madagascar, the first real computer animated failure, I was less concerned about the film's quality and more worried about the future of CGI comedies. See, it wasn't long ago when every single computer animated film was an unmitigated success-every Disney/Pixar movie to date has been exceptional, and Shrek, its sequel, and Ice Age have offered some worthy competition. However, Hollywood has caught up with itself, and producers have recognized what a bankable niche the CGI family comedy is. Now everyone's dipping into the pixilated pool, and the inevitable result will be, unfortunately, a slew of mediocre, quick-fix CGI duds. Madagascar isn't terrible, but I fear it's an introduction to the poisoning of a once great medium. Toy Story and The Incredibles have had their day. From here, the horizon looks dark.

The difference is that movies like Toy Story were very special projects. The subtle artistry behind CGI animation was so painstaking that studios like Pixar and Dreamworks spent years crafting these movies. And no one could spend that long writing, casting and animating a picture unless there was true love for its material and belief in its quality. Madagascar is the first CGI film that doesn't feel nurtured or blessed by a decade of hard work. It feels like Shrek, only without the years of shaping and sharpening. Slapped together without too much consideration, Madagascar doesn't have memorable characters, it isn't terribly funny, and doesn't care about any audience member older than 10. Madagascar is what happens when the magic of animation dies.

Visually, of course, Madagascar is stunning, but what CGI comedy isn't? Every single computer generated film, whether good or not so good, has remarkable visuals, so I can hardly recommend this film on the sights alone. The characters in Madagascar, blocky and retro yet smooth and elegant, are animated with joy and have a well-rehearsed sense of comic timing. The animators seem particularly smitten with the giraffe character, voiced by David Schwimmer, whose comically long neck flails into all sorts of humorous contortions. But why settle for Madagascar when you can find similar visuals in Shrek, Robots or even Revenge of the Sith, movies with actual substance beneath the look?

The story is about the four star attractions of the Central Park Zoo-Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith)-and their escape from captivity to the wild. Originally, the animals plan to go to Connecticut, where Melman says there are plenty of wide-open spaces, but when their cargo ship gets hijacked by a group of psychotic penguins, the foursome is accidentally dumped on the shores of Madagascar. The plot then becomes an awkward comedy about how four city-slickers manage in the wild.

Madagascar's story never really goes anywhere-it's more of a brass tacks plot designed to link jokes and not much else. The problem is, most of the jokes are pretty lame, nowhere near the clever, generation-bridging laughs of Shrek. A lot of Madagascar's humor is playful and silly, which might be fun for little kids, but not for adults, who will likely find most of the characters insufferably annoying. The lemurs who rule the jungle, for example, are passably amusing until they show no signs of shutting up, at which point you just want to strangle them all. And the voice work isn't great either. Ben Stiller never really sells the funny side of Alex, Jada Pinkett Smith is hardly used, and the script never allots a single good joke to Chris Rock, who could've easily saved this movie. The only stand-out performer is David Schwimmer, who consistently provides laughs as the long-necked hypochondriac, Melman.

The story does touch on one interesting note which, if explored more deeply, might make Madagascar into something fun. In the zoo, the animals all possess very human qualities-they talk, they sing "New York, New York," they're fed people food, and most of them walk on two legs, like a lot of cartoon animals. However, once they're removed from their human environment and are thrown into the wilds of Madagascar, their personalities fade, and their base animal instincts start to take over. Alex the lion, an easy-going showman when the zookeepers feed him steaks, suddenly returns to his carnivorous roots while in the wild. He even tries to bite his best pal, Marty. A dark side of my mind wants to see a movie where Alex fully obeys his id and goes on a rampage, or where Marty is depressed to learn that most zebras don't make wisecracks. But that could never happen in Madagascar, because it's a family movie that only flirts with the notion of animalistic instincts for comedic effect. But what a curious, adult-themed experiment this could have been!

Don't think me deranged for wishing Madagascar were darker. See this movie, and you'll understand that the cutesy angle just doesn't work. Perhaps a sinister tone isn't what Madagascar needs, but it does need some kind of edge, whether it be Shrek's subtle perversion or Toy Story's whimsical imagination. As a straight-forward, run-of-the-mill animated feature, Madagascar is an insult to its kin, and, sadly, probably not the last of its kind.

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