Madagascar…DreamWorks’ wildest franchise, literally and figuratively. You could say it’s quite mad!
Madagascar is the second DreamWorks series to get a third installment. The first Madagascar film was completed in 2005 and was the third-ever CG film from DreamWorks that didn’t feature a green ogre, coming off of the very gimmicky and hilariously outdated Shark Tale.
In some ways, Madagascar is a product of that very era. DreamWorks had somewhat specialized in a specific type of PG-rated comedy during the mid-aughts, working off of a formula modelled after Shrek and its hugely successful sequel. Madagascar on the one hand tried to be this way, but the film felt like it really wanted to be something else entirely. Boasting then-unexpected cartoony designs and a more squash-and-stretch style of character animation, Madagascar actually stuck out amongst many of its contemporaries. It felt like it was much closer to Ice Age than it was to Shrek or even Shark Tale. Nowadays, we’ve got more cartoony comedies like it: Sony’s Hotel Transylvania, the bulk of Illumination’s output, and several others. But Madagascar, for its time, had quite a unique look.
The first Madagascar movie ultimately suffered from being very uneven. Was it a Shrek-like comedy with edgy jokes that were meant to keep potentially-bored parents interested? Was it a giddy-goofy cartoony comedy in the vein of Looney Tunes and Tex Avery shorts? Was it a conventional animated comedy in a post-Disney Renaissance age of feature animation? The picture ultimately did not know, and the end product was a mixed bag.
Released three years later, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa was more focused. While Madagascar got by on its very likable cast of characters, Madagascar 2 kind of found its groove. It had a very weird sense of humor, the cartoony nature of the first film is heightened, and the characters get some development. While far from being a great film, Madagascar 2 at least tried to be one kind of animated feature, despite its rickety structure and weak villain.
So was 2012’s Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted a step forward? Would it go in a wildly different direction? Or would it go a step backwards or two?
Side note: you know what’s really odd about this series? In Madagascar 2, only a few minutes were spent in Madagascar. Madagascar isn’t featured at all in Madagascar 3. Now how about that?
To start off, Madagascar 3 took the things that really worked in Madagascar 2 and dialed them up. Madagascar 3 is a full-on, 90-minute cartoon. A delightfully weird cartoon at times! Madagascar 2, as mentioned above, was a rather oddball comedy. Not only did it have talking animals and slapstick, but it sported a real “anything goes” tone. Makeshift airplanes, a shark chasing Mort on land for hours, weird little jokes peppered throughout—it’s a nice break from the kind of humor you see in most animated features being made today. Oh, and King Julien…just King Julien. A funny and eccentric character in the first film, he’s downright freakish in Escape 2 Africa. And he’s even more freakish in Europe’s Most Wanted. He gets a really fun romantic subplot (he falls in love with a droopy, non-speaking, tricycle-riding, tutu-wearing bear) that just adds to the overall bonkers nature of the picture. Later, he and this bear travel to Rome, steal the Pope’s ring, and cruise around on a Ducati…all set to Andrea Bocelli…I mean, what other animated feature has such stuff going on?
Europe’s Most Wanted also has a pretty even story for the most part. To this writer, Madagascar numero uno lost steam in its second half, and the attempt to make it emotional by having Alex the lion succumb to his wild side felt at odds with the film’s loose and comical tone. I’m all for animated features working some darker, heavy stuff into the proceedings (see Kung Fu Panda 2 for an excellent example of this), but it feels more awkward in Madagascar. Madagascar 2 was mostly episodic, but that sequel was a little more genuine, using better conflicts to drive the story. Madagascar 3 is even better in this department. Alex is homesick and really wants to go back to New York, and the new characters have a rather sad backstory. The circus gang isn’t enjoying much success, and in a modern era, them at their “best” is still not enough. Why are they no longer entertaining audiences? Their leader—a hardened tiger named Vitaly—is traumatized from a stunt that went horribly wrong. The other faces, such as sea lion Stefano and jaguar Gia, are eager to break from the tradition that Vitaly has clung onto out of fear.
What sets this story in motion is its villain, Captain DuBois, a wingding French animal control officer. Right here is where Madagascar 3 really works, because Madagascar 2 had a bland and forgettable villain. Just some scheming, black-maned lion looking to take over the establishment because Alex, the King’s son, got in his way. Imitation-brand cola Scar. Why wasn’t his super-strong sidekick the main baddie? Anyways, DuBois is the exact opposite. She’s obsessed with taking down game animals, has had a history of maiming poor innocent creatures, knows their scents well, knows how to track them down like no other, her opera singing is powerful enough to get her lackeys out of their respective comas, she is virutally unstoppable, and…is an animal! In several scenes, she runs around on all fours! What you need to know about her is all nicely and inventively laid out with little-to-no hassle in the film’s first fifteen minutes.
Slapstick and high-stakes action are mixed like chocolate and peanut butter in this installment. Think the makeshift plane climax in Madagascar 2 but bigger, wilder, and funnier. The opening chase sequence alone has the zoo gang attempt to round the penguins and chimps up in a casino, break out, and get home. All goes awry, DuBois is called in, a wild chase through the city ensues. A wild chase that relentlessly tops itself minute after minute: DuBois rides her scooter like a skateboard, the SUV the animals use to escape is equipped with (thanks to the penguins and the chimps’ runaway success in the casinos!) state-of-the-art spy gear and a nuclear reactor (!), DuBois runs through walls in an office building like a Terminator; it’s just plain nuts. Here’s a film that takes full advantage of the medium and embraces its cartooniness. Best of all, it never dries up.
This same energy is applied to the film’s midpoint circus sequence, a colorful blast of surrealism that nearly brings it into ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ territory, a moment that also has a good reason to use a current pop song. (Katy Perry’s “Firework” for those who may live under a rock.) The climax takes that and adds DuBois, a final showdown that occurs in a familiar location that ends the movie on a high note.
A good-sized improvement over its predecessors, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted is not without some good-sized issues. Sometimes, the circus gang characters come off as a little too stereotypical, and the scene where the gang finds out about the zoo animals’ lies feels a tad forced. These do not detract from the fun, though the film is perhaps a few script touch-ups away from being an exceptional animated comedy. Perhaps it was the addition of Fantastic Mr. Fox screenwriter Noah Baumbach that elevated this installment, adding to what was already there. It feels as if the filmmakers took advantage of the success of the first two and made the crazy cartoony comedy that we should’ve gotten some twelve years ago.
Though it’s unknown whether Madagascar 4 will happen anytime soon, this would be a fine place to cap it all off. The zoo gang realizes that their life had truly begun once Marty left the zoo in the first Madagascar and that New York’s Central Park Zoo wasn’t truly their home. They’re with a bigger family now, and they’ll see success and fun and adventure. A fitting close, if it truly is the last feature, though I don’t doubt that Comcast will be pushing DreamWorks for a fourth film somewhere down the line.
What are your thoughts about Madagascar 3? Eager for a fourth movie?
Edited by: Kelly Conley