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Dreamworks Animation Countdown 10 ‘Madagascar’

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Have you ever noticed how great studio executives are at learning the wrong lesson?

When Shrek took over the box office in 2001, it naturally turned the heads of DreamWorks Animation execs (and animation-company execs in general). They sat down with the film, trying to determine just what it was that had attracted audiences. I imagine the thought process went something like this:

Was it the relatable characters? Nah.

What about the solidly-constructed script? Couldn’t be.

Perhaps it was the then-subversive idea of turning fairy tales on their head? I don’t think so.

What else could it be? What have we missed?

LOTS OF POP CULTURE REFERENCES, OF COURSE!

And so, like studio executives have done since the dawn of cinema, they took the path of least resistance. Rather than work on bedrock concepts like story and character, the execs latched onto an unimportant cosmetic change. In this case, it was joking about movies, TV, and music.

What happened as a result of this lesson? We got films like Madagascar.

As the film begins, we find our main characters living an average life in the Central Park Zoo. Alex (Ben Stiller) is a lion who loves being domesticated: he puts on shows for sellout crowds, he gets a stack of steaks every night, and he gets a cozy bed under a heat lamp. Melman (David Schwimmer) is a hypochondriac giraffe who appreciates the zoo for the constant health care. Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) is a level-headed hippopotamus who appreciates the zoo because it’s what she’s always known. However, Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) wants more out of life. He’s aware of this place called “the wild,” where animals run free and don’t have to perform every day. Marty wants to visit the wild, but his friends are more wary.

One night, Marty heads for Grand Central Station, planning to catch a train to the wild. Alex, Gloria, and Melman pursue Marty, trying to take him back to the zoo. Unfortunately, a chain of misunderstandings lead to Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria being crated up and sent to a wildlife preserve in Kenya. However, the ship is blown wildly off course (due to the zoo’s penguins hijacking the boat), landing our four leads on the shores of Madagascar.

Shortly after arriving, Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria blunder upon a tribe of lemurs, led by the raucous King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen). After Alex inadvertently thwarts an attack by the lemurs’ predators – the fossa – King Julien decides to wine and dine these new creatures. After all, as long as these newcomers are around, the fossa stay away! Marty, Gloria, and Melman settle into their new environs fairly quickly. However, Alex’s transition is more rocky; he misses home, and he’s troubled by this overwhelming urge to devour his friends…

Madagscar‘s core story is a basic one, the classic fish-out-of-water story we’ve all heard and seen a dozen times. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the story is bad, however, and, actually, Madagascar‘s story structure is solid. Sadly, the script’s overloaded with pop-culture references that feel so forced that they distract from the story. (The Twilight Zone, Hawaii Five-O, and Planet Of The Apes jokes are particularly intruding!)

Alex, Melman, Marty, and Gloria are decent characters; nothing stellar, but they’re decent. Unfortunately, ,the voice acting smacks of laziness. Ben Stiller, David Schwimmer, Chris Rock, and Jada Pinkett Smith are pop culture references in and of themselves, and it’s obvious that the execs cared about nothing more than the name recognition. Stiller, Schwimmer, Rock, and Smith seem to be sleepwalking through their voice work, but I don’t blame them. They weren’t hired for their talent; they were hired for their names.

Sadly, the laziness extends to the character animation. Now, I understand that Madagascar‘s calling card is zany humor, and that calls for a certain style of animation. However, as Looney Tunes made obvious, wacky comedy and good animation marry together perfectly well. Madagascar‘s animators apparently didn’t learn that lesson, for some of the character animation in this film is truly ugly. Body parts are out of proportion, background characters are obviously unfinished, and the character movement occasionally looks stiff.

I mean, take a look at this shot. That chin is ridiculous!

However, Madagascar does have one saving grace: the penguins! Skipper, Nico, Kowalski, and Private are only in the film briefly, but they steal every scene. The four characters have such a great chemistry together, and it’s a lot of fun to watch them combine forces to tunnel out of the zoo, hijack a freighter, pilot it to Antarctica, and then sail it back to Africa. I love every scene the penguins are in. It’s easy to see why they became a phenomenon!

I used to love Madagascar during my teen years, so I was sad to see that it doesn’t hold up well. However, the film does boast a solid story, decent characters, and those four penguins, so it’s not a total wash. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen the film, it’s probably worth a re-watch; it’s not painfully bad. However, there’s no doubt (in my mind, anyway) that this is one of DreamWorks Animation’s lesser efforts.

How about you? What do you think of Madagascar? Let us know in the comments!

Edited by: Hannah Wilkes

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About AJ Howell

AJ’s love of movies began when his mom took him to see The Lion King on a warm California day in 1994. He left the theater with his mind blown and with a strong desire to become a filmmaker. AJ’s fascinated with films of all kinds, but animated films have always held a special place in his heart, particularly Disney animation, the work of Chuck Jones, and Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson’s Peanuts specials. His favorite animated films include (but aren’t limited to) Frozen, Beauty And The Beast, Surf’s Up, The Bugs Bunny/RoadRunner Movie, and Toy Story 3. Along with films, AJ also loves pop and rock music, hiking, the beach, comic books, traveling, writing, acting, and baseball.

  • Sebastian

    In the minority here, but I really have a good time with Madagascar without really looking to deep into it. My first reaction was that these are definitely not real animals but more a bunch of anthropomorphic characters. I don’t mind it to be honest. Even though I liked the penguins they weren’t my pure enjoy in the film itself, that was always either Marty or Melman. I like to imagine that Madagascar really is Marty’s story, the movie starts out with him and even almost ends with him more than Alex. I like the references and can accept them cause the first time I saw this movie I laughed hysterically at the jukebox 80s songs and spy references. I don’t mind the animation either it’s just like someone described (overly active) always moving never taking a break, so I can see why some are tired of the animation’s pace. Sure the style is not appealing to everyone but I’m fine with it since it’s not trying to be realistic in the first place. No matter what I really like this movie and it surely has not aged as bad as say Shark Tale. Madagascar holds up for me to enjoy.

  • While the movie is mediocre, I don’t think you can have an honest overview of Madagascar without talking about its art design. It went for a deliberate style that was off-kilter, and then extended that to both the characters and the world itself. While you may have found the character proportions to be jarring, I found them to be eye-catching (right down to Gloria’s angular nostril spirals). It’s been overshadowed by newer films, but at the time it pushed computer animation in a very unique direction, and that’s what I’ll always remember about it.

    And the penguins. Because of course the penguins.

  • Dan Siciliano

    I enjoyed the first “Madagascar” for the penguins and some of the jokes. But I agree with you that the story is indeed weak and some of the sound effects made me underwhelmed.

  • Alex Beezley

    The Madagascar franchise is my least favorite that DreamWorks has to offer. That being said, I don’t think that the original Madagascar is a total miss. There are the penguins, of course, but there is also a good selection of songs, some good humor outside of the scenes with the four flightless birds, and decent voice acting. I agree that the pop culture references are overbearing, but I don’t think that they date the film too terribly. Overall, I think that this is an average film that I just don’t enjoy as much as I did when it was first released.

  • Chelsea Warner

    I liked Madagascar when I saw it in theaters. Later I watched like the first 45 minutes it at school (it was like the day before Thanksgiving or winter break or something) and I hated it. I never bothered with any of the sequels.

  • I’ve only seen this one twice in whole sittings and a few times in passing for work this summer and idk if I like it or just respect it.
    I mean the animation is clearly its own and the humor is mostly super hilarious with the Penguins/Julien and his friends, but again….I just am not sure, I think I gotta give it another shot to really know cuz I don’t hate it or anything! So weeeeiiiirdddd!!
    Also HILARIOUS opening to the article!! Definitely could see this going down!

  • I have a soft spot for Madagascar. Yes, the animation was weird and it was a little too
    frantic. However, I liked the comedy, the references, and the character were fun as
    well. It’s by no means great and the squeal was better, but this 1st one was simply fun.

  • Marielle

    I think it’s a good movie. The characters are interesting and setting it on Madagascar was an original idea. I didn’t even notice the pop culture references you mention. I think the movie works on both levels. Even without the pop culture references, there are some pretty funny situations with the old lady, the penguins, the hallucination, etc.

    The animation is bad, I agree with that.

  • Rachel Wagner

    Yeah I am with you on this one. I was shocked how bad the animation was when I watched it for the first time a few weeks ago. It’s not a good film.

  • Amber Dvorak

    Thank you for mentioning the part about Alex wanting to eat his friends…I knew I couldn’t be the only one who thought that hallucination sequence was pretty messed up. Aside from that, I’m honestly surprised this became a franchise.

  • Amber Dvorak

    It’s clear that the filmmakers were trying to replicate the success of Shrek here, but it didn’t quite work.