May 28, 2005

MOVIES: Madagascar (Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath, 2005)

Madagascar tells the story of Marty, a zebra at the Central Park Zoo (voiced by Chris Rock) who finds himself longing to experience "the wild," much to the dismay of his perplexed friends. Alex, a lion (Ben Stiller), is the zoo's star attraction, and can't imagine anything better than his pampered life of steaks and public adulation; Melman (David Schwimmer) is a hypochondriac giraffe, terrified of leaving his doctors and his pills ("I am not going HMO!" he shrieks at the thought of leaving); Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) is the gang's maternal figure, mending fences after each of the boys' squabbles.

Marty's breakout attempt goes bad, and the four find themselves on a boat headed for a Kenyan wildlife preserve; when they're separated from the boat, they wash ashore on Madagascar and find that life in "the wild" isn't what any of them had expected. (Geographically, this makes no sense, of course. Imagine a boat sailing from New York to Africa, and try to imagine how anyone's going to wash ashore on Madagascar, with the entire African continent between them and that island.)

The animation is a bit clunky, especially when compared to the brilliance of Pixar's movies, but the movie's look is bright and colorful, and some of the backdrops are lovely to look at. The voice work is generally effective. Chris Rock isn't a very subtle actor, but that lack of subtlety works better here than in live-action. David Schwimmer and Ben Stiller are playing their standard roles, but doing so quite nicely; Schwimmer is particularly funny, finding more variation that you'd expect in Melman's panic and hysteria. Gloria's the least interesting of the characters, and Pinkett Smith doesn't get much to do.

The best performance, though, is Sacha Baron Cohen as Julian, the king of the island's lemur tribe. Julian speaks in an accent that's a mix of Indian, Jamaican, and Yiddish, and his favorite subject is his own brilliance. (His chief lieutenant barely even pretends to put up with him anymore, introducing him in a bored voice: "And now here he is, Julian the 13th, self-appointed king of the lemurs, blah blah blah, hooray hooray.")

Madagascar isn't dazzling work, but it's a pleasant diversion.

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