Housed in the Central Park Zoo, star performing lion Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller), neurotic giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer), and sensible hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett-Smith), are all content with the adoration they get from the capacity crowds and their pampered lifestyle. However, depressed zebra Marty (Chris Rock) desires to be free in the wild, much to the disbelief of his friends. Sneaking out one night into the big city, Marty gets a taste of freedom, but it's cut short when his friends come to "rescue" him, and they all are caught. Packed in boxes and kicked out of the zoo, the group is sent on a journey overseas, which quickly goes awry, sending them to a new foreign land where they attempt to survive outside of Central Park.
After chasing Disney and Pixar with their own knockoff productions ("Shrek," "Shark Tale," "Antz"), Dreamworks animation has finally found its footing with the charming and unexpectedly hilarious "Madagascar" (IMDb listing).
Taking a cue from "Shrek," the production has front-loaded the voice cast with heavyweight celebrity names. Normally a distracting practice, the famous voices in "Madagascar" work delightfully and the talent brings their own sense of exuberance to the roles. While some of the cast, notably David Schwimmer as the hypochondriac giraffe Melman, were born to be animated voices, trickier talent, such as Ben Stiller, are a real surprise. Stiller, Pinkett-Smith, Schwimmer, and Rock make for a great group, sharing skillful chemistry and comic timing. "Madagascar" is defined by this core team, and the strange mixture of personalities makes for solid comic returns. For added fun, the production brings in Cedric the Entertainer and Sacha Baron Cohen in the film's second half as the two lemur leaders of the strange new land. Cohen (Ali G in his day job and starring in his first animated feature) is a scream here, giving a riotous performance and adding the right drop of insanity to the picture's sagging midsection. I'm hoping Cohen makes a career of this.
Filmmakers Eric Darnell ("Antz") and Tom McGrath elect for a more cartoonish mood for "Madagascar," deciding to pursue a good time with the feature in place of unnecessary heart or obligatory morals. The CG animation is heightened by strong, vivid colors and boxy character design, which gives the feature a more personable flair, and strengthens the comedy, much like a Pixar feature. Deliciously silly, the picture gets heavy mileage out of its frantic situations and strange characters, the best of which are a group of militaristic penguins that are hatching their own plans for escape, yet fail at every turn. Serving only as a passing gag every now and again, the penguins are indicative of the entire film, which isn't afraid to get refreshingly weird and broad when needed.
"Madagascar" is a slight, throwaway animated feature, but that's where its charm comes from. In an ocean of family films that either try too hard or aim too low, "Madagascar" is a charming, genuinely funny picture that provides a good ride for adults and kids.
Filmfodder Grade: B+