Dirs Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath. US. 2008. 98 mins
The sequel to DreamWorks’ computer-animated family hit Madagascar offers more drama and a lot more animals but fewer laughs and not quite as much fun as the colourful summer 2005 original. With most of the characters and voice cast returning, however, the sequel should still be able to approach - and perhaps even pass - the $533m worldwide take of the first film, even in an arguably less-suitable autumn/winter release slot.
The stylised design of the main characters doesn’t lend itself as well to drama as it did to the first film’s broad visual humour
Worldwide distributor Paramount opens the PG sequel extra-wide in North America this weekend, allowing the film two weeks to establish itself before the arrival of Disney’s computer-animated autumn offering Bolt. Given the date and slightly more dramatic tone, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa may skew fractionally older than the tot-friendly original did.
Already out in Russia, the sequel arrives in most major territories during December, just in time for school holidays. The timing should ensure that Madagascar2 follows the pattern for hit computer animations by grossing substantially more internationally than domestically (the original film garnered 64% of its worldwide total outside the US).
After a brief prologue and a recap of the original story the sequel finds its four main characters - performing lion Alex (voiced by Stiller), fast-talking zebra Marty (Rock), anxiety-ridden giraffe Melman (Schwimmer) and sassy hippo Gloria (Pinkett Smith) - preparing to leave Madagascar to go back to their New York zoo home. Joining them on their battered plane are returning characters King Julian the comical lemur (Baron Cohen), his sidekick Maurice (Cedric The Entertainer), the penguins and the chimps.
When the plane crash lands on an African wildlife reservation, the story divides into strands. Alex has to find his place in what turns out to be his cub-hood pride, Marty must adjust to life as one of the herd, Melman becomes an animal doctor and Gloria goes looking for a mate. Meanwhile the penguins and the monkeys set to work rebuilding the plane and a group of human New Yorkers - led by the first film’s feisty grandma character - have to learn how to survive when their safari goes astray.
Returning co-directors and co-writers Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath manage to keep all the narrative balls in the air but for most of its first hour the film feels unnecessarily busy. Though there’s a common moral about overcoming differences, none of the storylines amounts to much emotionally.
The African setting demands herds of new animals, though only a few become significant new characters. Among those are Alex’s long lost alpha male father, voiced by the late Bernie Mac, Gloria’s hippo love interest, voiced by will.i.am from rap’s The Black Eyed Peas, and a leonine villain enjoyably voiced by Alec Baldwin.
Whether by design or accident there’s less effective comedy in the sequel than there was in the original. Though Tropic Thunder co-writer Etan Cohen worked with Darnell and McGrath on the script (the first film had UK TV comedy writer Mark Burton and author Billy Frolick collaborating with the co-writer/directors), there’s noticeably less to laugh at this time out, with fewer pop culture references and silly slapstick gags.
Cohen’s endearingly autocratic King Julian and the militaristic penguins provide some comic relief, but the novelty of the characters has worn off a bit now. There’s a brief encore of the first film’s infectious lemur dance number, but after that the sequel’s songs (some co-written by will.i.am, who also co-composed the score with Hans Zimmer) are used only in snippets.
The slightly retro, Tex Avery-inspired look of the original is less pronounced in the sequel, which veers a little more towards naturalism. Darnell and McGrath make the most of the story’s African plains setting (Pan’s Labyrinth cinematographer Guillermo Navarro apparently advised on giving the film a cinematic feel). The stylised design of the main characters, however, doesn’t lend itself as well to drama as it did to the first film’s broad visual humour.
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Main cast (voices)
Jada Pinkett Smith
Sacha Baron Cohen
Cedric The Entertainer