Gags yes, plot no
I have no idea if the new DreamWorks animated feature Madagascar is going to make any money. In fairness, I have to admit that at the screening I attended, the packed house laughed often at its frantic parade of free-association gags. But it sounded to me as if the laughter had a kind of groaning, mechanical edge to it, an automatic response to a moment that isn’t really funny but prods you to respond as if it is—a mirth-like reaction to a joke-like substance. It just doesn’t seem likely to me that that kind of movie is going to draw much of the family audience away from Robots or Star Wars Episode III.
Madagascar has no real plot, just a parade of incidents trying to pass for a story. It opens in New York City’s Central Park Zoo, where the star attraction is Alex the Lion (voice by Ben Stiller). Alex is happy in captivity, doing tricks for the humans and gobbling down his three steaks a day. His pal Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), on the other hand, has just celebrated his 10th birthday, and, as middle age sets in, Marty longs for the free life in the wild. When a group of penguins, attempting to tunnel its way to Antarctica, makes an unscheduled stop in Marty’s compound, he impulsively follows the penguins through their tunnel to outside the zoo. Alex goes after Marty, hoping to save him from disaster, an effort in which he has the assistance of his and Marty’s two other pals, Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer).
The four escaped animals—that is, the escapee and his three rescuers—create mayhem among the human denizens of Manhattan before being captured. Deemed unsuitable for captivity, they all are crated up and put on a ship bound for Kenya to be released in the wild. En route, however, those industrious little penguins re-enter the story, still determined to get to Antarctica. They hijack the ship and drop the four pals off on the island of Madagascar. On the island, the four are befriended by a tribe of lemurs. Before long, Alex, dissatisfied with the lemurs’ vegetarian diet and ravenous for his former steak diet, begins to turn savage.
By this point, a good 45 minutes had gone by, and I was still waiting for the story to start, wondering when all the wacky gags and quirks were going to coalesce into the primal through-line that focused all the action. It never happened. All the verbal jokes that bristle from Mark Burton and Billy Frolick’s script, and all the fussy visual folderol that directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath hammer into place, may or may not be funny (just for the record, I never cracked a smile myself), but the gags have no roots in the story, and the characters are just illustrations for celebrity voices.
The Internet Movie Database listing for Madagascar offers a factoid that gives some insight into exactly what’s wrong with the movie. “At one point,” it says, “Madonna, Jennifer Lopez and Gwen Stefani were considered for the voice of Gloria the Hippo before Jada Pinkett Smith signed on.” What the hell kind of character could Gloria the Hippo possibly be if Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, Gwen Stefani and Jada Pinkett Smith all could be in the running to do her voice? And, for that matter, how can we have any confidence in a bunch of animators who would consider, even for one second, using Madonna for one of their character voices?
Did Darnell, McGrath, et al. recruit their voice talent and then try to construct the story around them? It’s hard to conclude anything else, especially when the film lists Stiller’s, Rock’s, Smith’s and Schwimmer’s names as if they were actually cast members—stars—instead of just voices. If that’s what Madagascar crew members did, then they got it backward. It would have been better to cast unknowns who had the right voices—but then they’d need some idea of what the right voices should sound like; when you can’t decide between Madonna and Jada Pinkett Smith, you probably don’t know what you want in the first place.
Without a real story or characters, Madagascar tries to fill the gap by telling nervous jokes—Bam! Bam! Bam!—one after the other, anything for a laugh. The movie has plenty of ingenuity. What it lacks—completely—is inspiration.