I blame the penguins for Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.
The smugly unflappable Skipper (co-director Tom McGrath) and his three penguin cohorts were clearly the best thing about DreamWorks’ original Madagascar, and they went on to star in an ongoing series on Nickelodeon. In the same way, Scrat the saber-squirrel was arguably the best thing about Ice Age (though Sid the sloth gave him a run for his money), and he has gone on to star in a series of animated shorts. Likewise, Mater the tow truck was, well, certainly not the best thing about Cars, but the breakout supporting character who went on to have his own TV show, Mater’s Tall Tales, and largely took over the disappointing sequel.
I continue to find the penguins of Madagascar amusing, at least in short bursts, and I have no objection to watching the little commando hooligans engaged in whatever straight-faced buffoonery they happen to be up to at the moment. As for the other four Central Park Zoo escapees — Alex the lion, Marty the zebra, Melman the giraffe and Gloria the hippo (Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith) — not to mention King Julien the lemur (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his entourage … I’d like to think that, left to themselves, they’d have run the franchise into the ground by now. But those dratted penguins keep the thing going.
The original Madagascar had a potentially interesting idea at the center of it — nature vs. culture — but under the influence of the Shrek franchise, it was drowned in a barrage of late 20th-century pop songs and pop-culture references. Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa didn’t have any ideas, at least in terms of the main conflict, but it did have a pervasive gender-bending theme that’s among the more distasteful twists in recent family entertainment.
Now comes Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, which has neither ideas nor notable themes, leaving only shtick, colorful set pieces and, of course, pop songs old and new. That makes it an improvement on Escape 2 Africa, I guess. I’d rather a family film have nothing on its mind than anti-family propaganda.
I do find one critic praising Madagascar 3 as “the most flamboyant family film ever made, a cinematic LGBT pride parade for children of all ages.” The main ground for this characterization, which he calls “flamingly obvious,” is not any actual thematic content, but the film’s “explosion of fruity colors and pastel fireworks, pitched to a degree of psychedelic phosphorescence that even Kenneth Anger would think was a bit too much, that Florenz Ziegfeld would declare was too elaborate. Welcome to family-friendly cinema in the age of Glee.”
Well, if “fruity colors” and “psychedelic phosphorescence” equal LGBT pride parade, I see the point … but must we concede that? Should “straight” family films be characterized by muted earth tones and coolly objective imagery? Does the riot of undersea color in Finding Nemo make Nemo’s gimpy fin a metaphor for That Kind of Different? As Freud didn’t say, sometimes a rainbow is just a rainbow. Right?
I guess one could apply a “queer studies” template to the whole Madagascar trilogy. In the original film, Alex has suppressed, socially unacceptable desires for one of his male buddies — specifically, he wants to devour Marty — moving him to inadvertently lick his friend and even bite him on the butt. (This leads to an awkward discussion that ends with Julien shrugging, “What is a simple bite on the butt among friends?” — before soliciting such a bite from Maurice the aye-aye.)
Of course, Madagascar doesn’t end with Alex “coming out” as a predator and eating Marty. Alex’s “socially unacceptable” desires mark him not as different from other lions, but precisely as the same; they are an instance of the biological imperatives that preserve the species, not an exception to them. (Alex’s confusion is due to his urban zoological environment that separates his appetites from their natural biological context; he has eaten steak for too long without experiencing where it comes from. He isn’t an herbivore trapped in a predator’s body; he’s a predator conditioned to think of prey in platonic terms.)
Still, it’s possible, maybe even plausible, that the awkward desires of Madagascar, and even the “fruity colors” of Europe’s Most Wanted, along with the gender-bending themes of Escape 2 Africa, all mark some level of influence of homosexual culture in the Madagascar series.
Whatever. That might be someone’s way of watching movies; it isn’t mine. I object to the overt themes in Escape 2 Africa, but I can’t get worked up about “fruity colors” and “psychedelic phosphorescence.”
If anything, I appreciate them. The big-top production numbers, scored to Katy Perry’s Firework, may not make any sense visually, but they have a surreal appeal that’s more ambitious than a lot of Hollywood family fare. Would it be over the top to say these sequences made me think of the classic “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence from Dumbo? I’m not saying the Madagascar scenes are as memorable or impactful, but at least they’re something different.
My main beef with the Madagascar franchise as a whole is simply that it’s lame. It’s all shtick, no heart. Some of the shtick in Europe’s Most Wanted is mildly amusing, particularly Frances McDormand (yes, Oscar-winner Frances McDormand) as a creepy French animal-control officer with Terminator-like resolve and endurance. Hard to believe, though, that over a decade after Shrek they’re still trotting out Matrix moves. Give. It. A. Rest.
There’s a trainful of new characters: a collection of circus animals who take in our heroes on the run from that animal-control officer. Among these are a bad-tempered Russian tiger (Bryan Cranston), a sensitive female jaguar (Jessica Chastain) and an enthusiastic Italian sea lion (Martin Short). Oh, and a tricycle-riding female bear named Sonya who is King Julien’s latest flame, allowing Sacha Baron Cohen to murmur lines like, “Ooh, you have a very hairy back. I like that in a woman.”
The plot wheezes through a hackneyed arc in which our heroes slowly win the trust of the circus animals and become friends before it’s revealed that they lied, followed by parting of ways and, of course, a reunion and reconciliation in the end.
A couple of fleeting Catholic-themed jokes are among the more dubious bits of humor. One character, praying in a moment of stress, babbles, “Mama Maria … Santa Maria … Mama Mia … Mia Farrow.” Then there’s a moment in Rome that cuts from St. Peter’s Square to a shot inside the Vatican of King Julien kissing the pope’s ring … and stealing it in his mouth. (Roman polizia later recover the papal ring from a hapless vendor.)
Finally, there is the elephant in the room, or, rather, the zebra in the circus afro, so prominently featured in the marketing. Da da, da-da-da-da-da, da CIRCUS! Da da, da-da-da-da-da, da AFRO! CIRCUS AFRO, CIRCUS AFRO! POLKA DOT, POLKA DOT, POLKA DOT AFRO!
At first I had the same reaction to this as Alex — “Really?” — but, by the end of the movie, I confess I had succumbed, with Stockholm Syndrome-like compliance, to its bizarre catchiness. Then again, I had no kids with me (having been burned bringing them to Escape 2 Africa), so I can’t speak to the potentially long-term consequences of exposing children to the circus afro. Parents: Think carefully. Pixar’s Brave isn’t far away.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.
Content Advisory: Much slapstick action; mild innuendo and rude language. Tolerable family viewing.