The Squid and the Whale and the Lion and the Zebra and the Giraffe and the Hippo and the Many Penguins

06/06/2012 4:00 AM |

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted
Directed by Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, and Conrad Vernon

If New York-area cineaste parents find themselves wanting for something to occupy themselves while taking their children to see Madagascar 3, the movie’s screenplay credits offer a novel activity: try to pick out which of the jokes were authored by cowriter Noah Baumbach. When NYC-based zoo lion Alex (voice of Ben Stiller), marooned in Africa for the past movie and a half or so with his pals Marty (a zebra voiced by Chris Rock), Melman (a giraffe, David Schwimmer), and Gloria (a hippo, Jada Pinkett Smith), pines for his hometown, it’s hard not to hear Baumbach’s voice in the semi-sarcastic reverie over a block with “nine Duane Reades” and the corporate version of Times Square, whether he actually wrote the lines or not.

Elsewhere, though, that voice is as hard to detect as Charlie Kaufman’s uncredited work on those Kung Fu Panda movies. It seems likely that he got the gig due to his friendship with Stiller, who he directed to a career-best performance in Greenberg, and his work co-writing Fantastic Mr. Fox with Wes Anderson, but the tenuous connections to Stiller at his most caustic and a family movie at its most adult-friendly become even stranger when you consider the expert-free DreamWorks formula for comedy writing, still very much in effect for this, their second sequel to Madagascar and sixth as a company overall. The house style dictates that any scene can be joked its way out of via inherently hilarious ultra-slow-motion or the inherently hilariouser playing or singing of a familiar pop song.

These things happen often in Madagascar 3 as the castaway animals travel to Monaco, run afoul of a zealous, Terminator-ish animal-control officer (voiced, with a French accent, by Frances McDormand), and run away with a floundering European circus in hopes of making their way back to Manhattan. Yet the movie is at least funnier and less punishingly talky than its dire predecessor, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (the thrilling story of how the animals go from being stranded in one part of Africa to being stranded in another part of Africa). The DreamWorks freneticism is in full effect, and plenty of the jokes fall as flat as their live-action counterparts—hearing a cartoon lion say “really?” in response to ridiculous behavior doesn’t make it any more novel—but at times the endless chases, slapstick, and yammering have a Looney Tunes sort of energy.

The Madagascar animals, with jutting corners and angles, have always been a little more stylized than some of their DreamWorks counterparts; here they’re as squashable and stretchable as ever, especially the character animation on Stefano (voice of Martin Short), an Italian sea lion whose springy mouth sometimes looks positively Tex Averyish. The blithely destructive and optimistic team of penguins returns, too; a too-large supporting cast of penguins, monkeys, and lemurs hovers around the main characters automatically like videogame sidekicks. But yes, there is something pretty funny about watching those penguins drive a car. If a Baumbach polish was intended to give Madagascar 3 any emotional heft, it gets lost in the clamor. But if the filmmakers intended to make the movie somewhat more tolerable for moviegoers who don’t automatically bust a gut at Chris Rock chanting the words “afro circus” to the tune of big-top music, mission kinda, sorta accomplished.

Opens June 8