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May 12, 2006 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | May 12, 2006 |

Sooner or later, DreamWorks needs to learn to stop half-assing these animated features. Pixar makes it work by not insulting the audience’s intelligence. Their comedy-dramas are sharply written, funny, appropriately cast and emotionally engaging. One can’t simply explain the difference in the two as an apportionment of talent. The difference here is largely ideological. The Pixar films succeed because (I’m guessing) none of their studio heads say things like: “Oooh! Let’s get David Schwimmer to play this whiny, hypochondriac giraffe! That would be hilarious!!”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the guys over at DreamWorks have produced another crapper because they think hearing/seeing Ben Stiller’s voice and mannerisms coming out of a lion will be funny enough that they won’t have to bother coming up with any jokes or a story arc. Maybe no one at DreamWorks actually went to see Shark Tale, else they’d have found theatergoers grimacing at the painful non-funniness of Will Smith saying “Ahh yeeaah, baby!” as a fucking flounder. Hell, even Shrek and its profitable sequel at least managed to get the jokes right while balancing a heavyweight cast. Not so with Madagascar, where the celebrities are the joke.

Here at the Central Park Zoo, Marty the Zebra is having a midlife crisis over whether or not there’s something more to life than living the pampered existence of a zoo animal. His concerns fall on the deaf ears of his friends; Alex the Lion, a media whore who is content to have his belly filled and ego scratched; Melman the Giraffe, whose personality is entirely his own, damnit, and not that of some whimpering, oleaginous loser from “Friends”; and Gloria the Hippo, who we know is cool because blaccent sounds funny coming from a hippopotamus.

Un-assuaged by his friends’ plea to let well enough alone, Marty follows the example of some militaristic penguins and strikes out for “The Wild.” When his friends follow in hot … or rather, lukewarm pursuit, they all get busted and shipped off to Africa. The penguins then shanghai the boat and our four pampered pets get stranded on the titular island. Actually, not a hell of a lot else happens after that. I seem to remember a nation of lemurs, led by goofball king Julian (voiced by Ali G — one of the few actors to raise a chortle or two) and a pointless subplot about Alex trying to eat Marty, but the story meandered so much that not even the nine-year-olds in the audience bothered to put down their Yu-Gi-Oh! cards and pay attention to it.

I can’t blame them, because when I bothered to look up myself, I was too busy not-laughing to follow along. The jokes in Madagascar are a miserable attempt to appeal to the petulant kiddie demographic while being tolerable to their parents, but in the end nobody’s laughing at the resulting blandness. Once in a while a not-so-subtly placed reference is thrown in, i.e. Alex screaming “You maniacs! You burned it up! Darn you all to heck!” when a Statue of Liberty-like effigy is destroyed. The grownups may get the reference, but neither they nor their bored kids will find it very amusing.

By the end of its blessedly short 85-minute running time, Madagascar will have cheated its viewers on almost all fronts. Kids will be left waiting for their laughs, adults will be left waiting for the story to take off, and Yours Truly will be left waiting for a poacher to blow up that goddamn giraffe with an elephant gun. All of us will be left in the lurch, and we have DreamWorks’ laziness to thank for that.

Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.

Film | May 12, 2006 |



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