With last year's "Cars 2," Pixar proved the unthinkable: they can make a mediocre movie. For the first time in the company's existence, its reign as the king of animated films is in question.
The good news for Pixar is that DreamWorks' "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" isn't going to change the status quo. It never reaches any depth whatsoever, and the story gets predictably familiar as it goes along. However, "Madagascar 3" isn't trying to reach those levels; it's attempting to be bouncy, jubilant fun, and by those standards, the film succeeds.
Haunted by nightmares of old age and a gray mane, Alex the Lion (voiced by Ben Stiller) and his friends (Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith and David Schwimmer) decide to hightail it back to the zoo they once desired to escape. Of course, it wouldn't be much of a film if they just hopped on a boat and politely walked through customs. Instead, the posse must go to Monte Carlo, find their wily penguin friends and use their monkey-powered plane to fly back home.
Along the way, they encounter Madame Dubois (Frances McDormand), a murderously obsessive animal-control agent with a lion-shaped hole on her dead animal wall of fame she'd like to fill.
In order to escape Dubois' wrath, the crew hide with a struggling circus troupe, featuring a bitter, hoop-jumping tiger ("Breaking Bad"'s
Bryan Cranston) and Gia (Jessica Chastain, who I believe starred in every major release last year), an alluring jaguar that captures Alex's attention.
After the DreamWorks Animation logo fades off the screen, "Madagascar 3" bombards the audience with a frenetic onslaught of jokes and gags. Barely a minute goes by without a character's face stretching toward the camera, probably to take advantage of the 3D (my screening was 2D, so I can't comment on the added third dimension). The energetic pace is jarring at first, jumping from joke to joke without pausing for air or allowing the audience to take anything in.
Luckily, its daffy sense of humor fits pretty nicely with its breakneck speed. I use the word "daffy" on purpose because the film seems to be inspired by the antics of the famous duck and his Looney Tunes pals. The characters launch themselves with dynamite, fly into walls and squeeze through comically small hoops and holes.
The pinnacle of "Madagascar 3"'s lunacy is Madame Dubois. She's a wildly entertaining cartoon, tracing the heroes' movements by crawling around the ground on all fours and sniffing like a police dog-spider hybrid. When she does get a whiff of their scent, she even freezes in place and points her nose in the correct direction. All she needs is to hop up in the air with her legs spinning, and she'd be right at home in a classic Warner Bros. cartoon.
The only place where the humor falls flat is in its repetitive use of popular songs for laughs, a common crutch for children's films. The first movie struck gold with its use of Reel 2 Real's "I Like To Move It," but it seems to have convinced the creators they should keep randomly referencing hit songs, like "Wannabe," to ineffectively fill in for jokes and punch lines.
I suppose that's the benefit of moving so fast, however. The failed jokes tend to fade in "Madagascar 3"'s rear view mirror as it speeds off to its next quip or visual gag. The story and characters disappear into the distance as well, but that's a consequence of always being in a rush. In fact, the film most resembles a sugar rush: an insubstantial burst of energy that's over before you know it, but fun while it lasted.