Released 10 years after Pixar’s pioneering Toy Story, the first fully computer-animated feature film, DreamWorks Animation’s 2005 entry Madagascar is a credible contender for the dubious distinction of being the first truly lame computer-animated cartoon (if you don’t count the lame but non-cartoony CGI — computer-generated imagery — realism of the non-comedy fantasies Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and The Polar Express).
A listless, strangely cheap-looking affair lacking even the modicum of heart and energy — to say nothing of the visual interest — of a Shrek or Shark Tale, Madagascar’s tale of four Central Park Zoo animals making a break for the wild and winding up shipwrecked on the titular island was nevertheless a major hit with undemanding family audiences. And where there’s a hit, sure as rain, there must be a sequel.
Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa reunites the ensemble cast of the first film, and more money and effort has been thrown at the script and on the screen.
The characters look about as good as they could be made to look while still resembling their original incarnations. The story — in which our heroes, the paramilitary penguins and a few of the lemurs, escape from Madagascar in what’s left of a plane crash, only to crash it again in Africa near a wildlife preserve — is more competently crafted, building to a traditional climax where the original sort of petered out in the third act.
It’s also a bit of a hodgepodge, combining elements of The Lion King, Joe vs. the Volcano and Happy Feet, among others. To wit:
The Lion King: A lion cub is separated from his kingly father due to the machinations of a scheming rival and grows up far away from the pride, never learning the ways of adult lionhood. The rival succeeds in taking over the pride, after which the plain goes from a paradise to a dustbowl.
In this case the cub is Alex (Ben Stiller), whom a flashback prologue reveals was born in Africa but fell prey to poachers and wound up in Central Park Zoo by mistake.
Joe vs. the Volcano: A hypochondriac New Yorker who thinks he’s about to die of a terminal disease volunteers to throw himself into a volcano as a sacrificial victim to bring blessings to the local natives, only admitting his true feelings to the girl he loves just before his imminent death.
This would be Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer), while the girl is — well, wait for it.
Happy Feet: A macho animal father is chagrined by his son’s unbecoming affinity for dancing — a misunderstood habit that is socially suicidal among his fellows, but turns out to be critical in engaging human beings.
This, again, is Alex, whose Central Park Zoo antics don’t fly back on the wildlife preserve.
More significantly, Madagascar 2 not only recalls Happy Feet’s satire of religion, it also makes the latter’s coy coming-out subtext look tame compared to its own overt running theme of sexual diversity.
Not once, but twice, in Madagascar 2 we are told that “Love transcends all differences” and “Love knows no boundaries.”
Thus, for example, Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) the hippo’s interest in meeting males of her own species, whether in the zoo “breeding program” or among the wild hippos of Africa, sends Melman (David Schwimmer) the giraffe into jealous indignation, since (the filmmakers have now decided) the awkward Melman has always carried a torch for Gloria.
In Africa, a sensual, ultra-macho hippo (husky-voiced rapper will.i.am) named Moto Moto (which we’re told means “hot hot”) expertly puts the moves on Gloria, who responds with all the “take me” willingness of a hippo who hears her biological clock ticking — until she realizes that Melman’s sweet devotion makes Moto Moto’s Barry White on-the-make style seem shallow.
This builds to a scene in which Melman, convinced that he’s dying and preparing to offer himself as a sacrifice to the gods of the volcano, stands decked out in garlands and a kind of veil that gives him a distinctly bridal look — a connection reinforced when Gloria snatches him from falling to his death and stands holding him in her arms like a groom carrying the bride across the threshold.
A wedding follows shortly, with Gloria apparently marrying the bridal Melman — though it turns out that another even more mismatched “couple” may actually be getting hitched.
Madagascar 2 repeatedly “pairs” the crisp-talking penguin Skipper (co-director Tom McGrath) with — I am not making this up — a hula-dancer bobble-doll.
Prior to the mock wedding, I thought the Skipper-doll theme reached a low point when the chimps, negotiating labor benefits with the penguins, produce “incriminating” photos of Skipper and the bobble-doll in their bid to secure maternity leave. I guess sexual blackmail knows no boundaries either.
Incidentally, the photos are produced in response to Skipper’s objection to offering maternity leave on the grounds that (with a glance under the table) the chimps are “all male.”
Then there are further cross-dressing jokes, from an opening scene with King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) of the lemurs popping out of a cake dressed as a girl chortling, “I’m a female! Which of you is attracted to me?” to a closing gag in which Alex, reunited with his leonine father Zuba (Bernie Mac), convinces rival male Ma--kunga (Alec Baldwin) that a lady’s pocketbook is a “man bag” and gets him to put it over his shoulder as a prelude to a butt-kicking.
All told, Madagascar 2 crosses the line from poor taste to propaganda.
Then there’s Julien’s religious commentary. Just prior to taking off from Madagascar in their salvaged plane, Julien advises the passengers to “pray to your personal god this hunk of junk flies.”
In Africa, proposing the volcano sacrifice, Julien performs an extended comic dramatization of a volcano god satiated with sacrifices while a hospitable worshipper insists that he take more.
Later, concerned that his sacrifice proposal hasn’t worked, Julien exclaims, “The science seemed so solid!” Finally, an alternate “sacrifice” occurs at the very moment that the problem is solved, allowing Julien to believe that the gods have heard him, though we know the real explanation.
None of this is as subversive as Happy Feet’s anti-religious themes, but it doesn’t help either.
I see I’ve left out Marty (Chris Rock) the zebra’s identity crisis on learning that all African zebras look and sound exactly like him, among other things. Does this mean even female zebras sound like Chris Rock, or that there are no female zebras?
At this point, I’m not sure I want to know.
Steven G. Greydanus is editor
and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.
Content advisory: Recurring cartoon violence; some crude and suggestive humor; parental separation themes. Might be too intense for sensitive youngsters.