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Friday, March 13, 2009

'Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa'

Jungle fever not so high as last time

As some readers may already know, my Tokyo alter-ego is that of an independent record label owner. If there's one thing I've learned over the years it's to never give my friends free CDs. It's not that I don't want to be generous, and in fact, I used to hand out a lot. But the reality is that people will always value something they paid for more than something they got for free. Call it human nature.

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
Animal magic: Melman, Gloria, Alex and Marty in "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" © 2008 DREAMWORKS ANIMATION LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Director: Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath
Running time: 89 minutes
Language: English
Opens March 14, 2009
[See Japan Times movie listing]

I was reminded of this at a recent screening of the new DreamWorks animated film, "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," where not a single other person in the critic/insider audience laughed even once. Now, I saw the first "Madagascar" in the cinema, with my girl on my arm and a bucket of popcorn, and we laughed long and hard, as did most of the other paying customers in the audience.

The new "Madagascar" is clearly on autopilot, and struggling to make a franchise out of what was clearly a one-film premise. (Its solution: rip off "The Lion King.") But it still manages to deliver some great, zany laughs in spurts. When a bunch of hard-boiled penguins stage a road-kill accident in order to carjack some tourists' SUV, anyone who isn't laughing should consider a career as a laboratory specimen for scientists studying pathological humor impairment. Or maybe they just need to buy their own tickets for a change.

The first "Madagascar" was basically an extended fish-out-of-water joke, with four animals from NYC's Central Park zoo — Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) — winding up in an African jungle and totally unable to cope. By the end, they had adapted to their new environs, leaving the question of what to do with the sequel.

"Madagascar 2" starts with the four friends deciding there's no place like home and embarking on a journey back to Manhattan, courtesy of a cargo-cult plane wreck reassembled and piloted by those ever-resourceful penguins. Also along for the ride are King Julian, the disco-loving king of the lemurs (voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen of "Borat"), his assistant Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer) and those erudite monkeys from the first film.

After a short but death-defying plane ride ("Thanks again for choosing Air Penguin!"), Alex and friends land in a wildlife reserve, and, unbeknown to them, they're still in Africa. Various subplots arise: Alex meets his long-lost parents; Melman pines for Gloria, who's attracted to a suave hippo named Moto Moto (will.i.am); and Marty learns he's just one of the herd, all of whom look and act just like him.

Basically, none of these are very gripping, especially Alex's attempts to resolve his "issues." With pop-psych dialogue like, "It's all about you, isn't it?" or "I wasn't there when you needed me," it's a relief every time the crazy penguins or campy King Julian get some screen time. "Madagascar 2" can certainly do sight gags and puns, but when it comes to pathos, this is absolute fluff compared to what Pixar's "Wall-E" was capable of.

Nothing in "Madagascar 2" can top that totally off-the-wall and unexpected moment in the first film when King Julian suddenly turned up at this jungle rave, shaking it to a booming house beat. They wring that joke dry in the first five minutes of the new film — with the lemur king in drag, no less — but dancing remains a constant, with Alex looked down upon as a wussy by other lions for dancing instead of fighting, until, of course, his dancing skills save the day.

It's interesting to note what kids' films are inculcating these days: aside from "Stand by your friends" and "It's all right to be different," the little ones will also learn here that you got to move it-move it.

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