There's a lot of interesting stuff happening in animation today. Very little of it is happening at Dreamworks.
As companies like Pixar and visionaries like Hayao Miyazaki and Henry Selick continue to push the medium forward in exciting new directions for audiences of all ages, Dreamworks targets a commercial sweet spot: colorful, hyperactive, joke-a-minute romps packed with celebrity voices and broad humor. They satisfy kids, entertain parents and generally make good money doing it.
So what's the problem? Well, nothing if you enjoy the Dreamworks brand of expertly crafted, utterly disposable entertainments. Occasionally they even hit on a genuinely great film, like "How to Train Your Dragon." But usually, if wisecracking animals, callow pop culture references and the shameless desire to turn every story into a franchise isn't your bag, enduring a new Dreamworks release can be a trial indeed.
"Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" is neither the best nor the worst of the Dreamworks formula. It's a solid hit right down the middle, designed to distract kids with its loud, shiny, smart-alecky shenanigans and please some parents with its quirky humor and soft-peddled sentimentality. But is there any reason to seek it out if you don't have kids to bring along or a desire to see every animated movie ever made? Not really.
Like the previous "Madagascar" films, this one features escaped New York zoo animals Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the Hippopotamus (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) who remain stranded in Africa, still trying to make their way back to the Big Apple as the film opens. They've also still got a trio of lemurs (voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric and the Entertainer and Andy Richter), a pair of chimpanzees and a quartet of precocious penguins tagging along to maximize the opportunities for oddball hilarity.
What's new here -- and what just barely saves the movie from becoming the cinematic equivalent of a Happy Meal -- is a traveling circus that agrees to shelter the crew when they get to Europe. (There aren't many places for giant animals, even lovable cuddly ones, to hide out and cross the continent.) The circus adds four more characters to the mix: burnt out Vitaly the Tiger (Bryan Cranston), adventurous Gia the Jaguar (Jessica Chastain), happy-go-lucky Stefano the Sea Lion (Martin Short) and (most bizarrely) Sonya the Bear -- a mute drooling giantess who rides a tricycle, sports a pink tutu and gets involved in an unlikely romance with Baron Cohen's diminutive lemur King Julien XIII. Their opposites attract sight-gag driven relationship is no different from Donkey and Dragon in "Shrek," but it's still kooky enough to prove the "Madagascar" filmmakers aren't totally asleep at the wheel.
They also toss in a memorable villain: Captain Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand), a French-accented authoritarian so cartoonishly maniacal (even for a cartoon) that she may earn the film an endorsement from Fox News. Although her definitively denounced bloodlust for hunting animals could cancel that out.
Even better, Cranston, Chastain and Short add welcome touches to fresh characters who are never quite as broad as their thick European accents. They're heartfelt dreamers who factor into the best sequences -- an alternately soaring and tender trapeze lesson between Alex and Gia, the harrowing history of Vitaly's novelty act -- and easily outshine the original supporting players shoved to the background, especially Gloria and Melman. Since the series has never developed its large cast as endearingly as the "Toy Story" or "Shrek" films, spending less time with some of the regulars does nothing to unbalance its limited emotional appeal. And Stiller's Alex remains front and center, as amiably dull as ever.
Film geeks will take notice that the screenplay is credited to Eric Darnell (a "Madagascar" regular who also co-directed with Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon) and Noah Baumbach -- the indie icon known for acid-dripped dramedies "The Squid and the Whale" and the Stiller-starring "Greenberg." I don't know what Baumbach was responsible for, but it's probably not the repeated use of Katy Perry's "Firework." Though I'm sure, like everyone else, he enjoyed the paycheck.
"Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" opens June 8