Opening over the big Memorial Day weekend, the official start of the summer movie season (as if it hadn't already unofficially begun a few weeks ago), Dreamworks has shrewdly positioned their latest CG-animated family feature to open near the same date as their enormously popular "Shrek 2
" did last year. Additionally, they are releasing it on over 4,100 screens, currently the third-widest opening of all time. All of these factors will ensure that Dreamworks will again be making a nice, quick profit before anyone gets a chance to spread bad word-of-mouth around. And, as flustering as Dreamworks' other 2004 animated movie, "Shark Tale
," was, what with all of its worn-out references and soon-to-be-dated pop cultural asides, that film, at the very least, appeared to have a kind of storytelling vision behind it. Their latest film in question is yet another step down, further signifying that when it comes to the world of animation, Dreamworks has nothing on Pixar. "Shrek
" and "Shrek 2
" were beautifully crafted and creative twisted fairy tales, but one senses while watching the dud, "Madagascar," that that series' success may have happened by accident.
Alex the Lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) are mismatched best friends living in New York City's Central Park Zoo. For Alex, there is no place he would rather behe gets treated like a king by the staff, who give him raw steaks every day, and delights in entertaining the kids on "Field Trip Day"and Gloria and the hypochondriac Melman are content, too. Marty, however, is itching to escape to a place he has never been known as "The Wild," an idea brought about after a run-in with four plotting penguins on their way to Antarctica.
As Marty goes on the run through Manhattan with the other three in hot pursuit, what happens next, and how, had the definite ability to be wide-eyed and imaginative, limitless in its possibilities of where such a plot could be taken. Sadly, where directors Eric Darnell (1998's "Antz") and Tom McGrath do take "Madagascar" isn't worth the voyage of the characters, who are left stranded in search of a story, or the audience, who will likely meet the end credits wondering, "Is that all there is?" Yes, it is, and it isn't much, with screenwriters Mark Burton and Billy Frolick eventually setting up an admittedly provocative statement about the sometimes ugly nature of wildlife (and all living beings, in general) before throwing it away in favor of a perverse last-minute punchline that has to be one of the most downbeat, depressing and anticlimactic endings in animated movie history.
Eventually, Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria are left stranded on an island deserted by humans and overrun by lemurs, who are a physical cross between a squirrel and a monkey. Alex's sudden lack of nourishmentred meat, to be exactleads him to discover for the first time in his life his violent animal instincts. He begins visualizing his friends, particularly zebra Marty, as steaks themselves, and the film suggests a buildup to a confrontation between the two best buddies where Marty either gives into his nature or finds a way to reject it. The viewer hopes this to be the case, as the whole second half of the brief 86-minute "Madagascar" spins its wheels with no true villains, no real conflict, and no detectable movement of the plot. This sudden dark turn from the lighthearted opening acts may be a bit mature for the youngest of kids, but it had a point behind it and wasn't just suggesting violence for violence's sake. Overly cautious soccer moms can rest easy, though, as "Madagascar" reveals itself to be utterly cowardly, not prepared to tackle such topics as life, death and the "circle of life," and frustrating, since this major narrative thread was brought up to begin with and then not followed through to completion. In fact, the whole of "Madagascar" doesn't find an ending so much as it just finally gives up, tacks on a hugely misguided last scene, and flashes to credits.
Like so many animated motion pictures these days, "Madagascar" delights itself in referencing other movies and culture (this time, the targets includes "American Beauty
," "Chariots of Fire," "Cast Away
" and the "National Geographic" TV specials). Some are amusing, if predictable, and others are cloying, much like all the comedy, but none could be considered groundbreaking or even all that inspired. The same could be said about the rest of the comedy, with only one or two moments really standing out as anything special (the payoff to the penguins' arrival in Antarctica comes to mind). So dispensable is the film that it has little kid-to-adult crossover appeal, besides, and even children will only be sporadically amused with the slim pickings offered up here. With characters that never truly come into their own and form identities outside of Screenwriting 101 cliches; voice work that is workmanlike, but not outstanding, save for Chris Rock, who has more of a presence without appearing in the flesh than he does in this week's live-action would-be effort, "The Longest Yard
;" animation that is pretty, but doesn't have even a single "wow" moment in all of its running time; and a story that wastes its potential and doesn't even appear to know where it is going, "Madagascar" is one of the most lackluster of the modern, big-budget CG-animated releases. When it is all but forgotten about by everyone by the end of the year (think 2000's equally floundering "Dinosaur
"), it will be a cinematic justice well-deserved.