Four animal friends perform for visitors daily at the Central Park Zoo in Manhattan: Alex the Lion (voices of Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Christ Rock), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer), and Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith). Alex turns ten years old, which is mid-life for this lion, and he starts getting metaphysical about the meaning of his life in captivity. Alex longs for the wild. Alex discovers that four penguins are trying to dig their way out of the zoo to return to the Antarctic and he escapes with them.
Marty, Melman, Gloria think Alex is only going to Connecticut by train rather than with the penguins, and indeed they find him at Grand Central Station. There New York’s finest, a tough old lady and a cowardly animal control person subdue and capture the animals. People protest their captivity, and soon all the animals are crated and shipped via an uncomfortable 21st century version of Noah’s Arc to their countries of origin (shipping doesn’t seem to have improved over the centuries.)
Events transpire that the four African animals fall off the ship, and the penguins take over and head south for their cold climate. Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria are washed ashore on the large island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean and have to deal with the local animal population, headed by the lemurs; the Central Park animals keep seeking out people who can straighten things out, but the only human available is the skeleton of a deceased pilot. So much for humans.
Madagascar, produced by Dreamworks, is a beautifully rendered top-of-the-line animated film for the pre-K through primary grade set. The little kids in the audience (2-3 per every adult from what I could see) laughed with glee at the antics of the animal characters. The adults, me included, only chuckled here and there when we caught one of the New York references – which, truth be told, were many but not all that funny.
Only two writers are listed at www.imdb.org but I think there were four named on the credits. Too many writers usually spoil the broth and, whether there were two or four for this film, I think they did spoil what could have been a classic.
There is no real story, and whenever the “action” and dialogue got close to establishing links between humans and the animal kingdom (like animal rights perhaps, or taking animals from their natural habitat and trying to return them, or as anthropomorphic tales traditionally do, create analogies with human events and behavior), the “narrative” went somewhere else. The writing tried to be clever and engage adult viewers by approximating swear words, for example. I did think that Sugar Honey Ice Tea was a pretty good attempt, as was “hoover Dam” but ha ha and then what?
The two main themes of Madagascar were for me friendship among humans by analogy and kindness to animals. And if children can come to a better understanding of these ideas through the film, then what more could we want?
It’s difficult for an adult to judge films for the very young because the pace is slow and the filmmakers know what techniques work to get their attention, engage their imaginations and entertain them. The parents and caregivers are a bonus captive audience. But if the little ones like it, go for it.
Sometimes a movie is just a movie.