Dirs: Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath. US. 2005. 86 mins.

Apparently inspired by both the slapstick cartoons of Tex Avery and thestrange, stylised paintings of Henri Rousseau, the latest computer animatedfamily feature from DreamWorks delivers eye-catching fun for kids and justabout enough cute comic moments to keep their parents amused as well. Thoseelements alone should ensure a profitable early summer theatrical run and animpressive DVD take. But the lack of a really satisfying story suggests that Madagascarwill ultimately perform more like DreamWorks' Shark Tale - whose $370mworldwide gross is certainly not to be sniffed at -- than the studio's biggestcomputer animated hits, Shrek and its massively successful summer 2004sequel.

DreamWorks opens the film in the US on May 27 (a week later in the summer thanboth the Shrek films), taking advantage of the Memorial Day holidayweekend. As the only PG-rated film launching for the holiday, and with areported $50m marketing campaign behind it, Madagascar will get a bigstart in the marketplace. And with little direct competition - aside fromJapanese import Howl's Moving Castle the next big animated release is Valiantin mid-August - it should continue to perform strongly as the summer seasonprogresses.

UIP will roll the film out into the international marketplace through June andJuly and into September. Given the global appeal of computer animation and thelocal voiceover possibilities offered by the film's animal characters, Madagascarcan be expected to perform even better internationally than in the US.

Co-directors Eric Darnell (who previously directed Antz) and Tom McGrath(an animator and writer) worked on the script with UK TV comedy writer MarkBurton (Chicken Run) and author Billy Frolick. Their story begins in NewYork's Central Park Zoo, where Alex the Lion (voiced by Stiller), Marty theZebra (Rock), Melman the Giraffe (Schwimmer) and Gloria the Hippo (PinkettSmith) spend their days like veteran vaudevillians, performing on demand forthe urban crowds.

Soon, though, Marty's hankering to experience the wild leads the four friendson an unexpected and unwelcome adventure that eventually lands them on theexotic jungle island of Madagascar. Some of the local animals - notably acommunity of excitable lemurs - are friendly but others are not and before longthe four New Yorkers are finding out what living in the wild really entails.

The film's overall look is one of its chief assets. The jungle backgrounds, inparticular, are dazzlingly colourful and the local fauna provides the animatorswith plenty of opportunities to create appealingly cute supporting characters.Among the most enjoyable are the lemurs -- some of them resembling Gremlins,but many looking delightfully cuddly - and a gang of penguins who pop upintermittently to deliver very amusing bits of comedy business.

The four lead characters are given a more stylised look, reminiscent of thework of Avery and other forties and fifties animation artists such as ChuckJones. Though it has a certain retro appeal, the style sometimes robs the leadcharacters of expressiveness, making dramatic or at least emotional moments alittle bit harder to achieve.

The classic cartoons made by Avery and Jones are also the big influence for thefilm's physical comedy, which consists mostly of variations on classicslapstick routines done with enough simplicity - as well as plenty of animationskill, of course -- to delight younger children.

For adults, the film offers a string of throwaway verbal gags touching oneverything from Tom Wolfe to contemporary movies to the advantages of Canada'shealthcare system.

The lead voiceover performances are warm and amusing but not particularlydistinctive. Stiller's voice is barely recognizable coming out of Alex theLion's mouth, Rock is pleasantly goofy as Alex's best friend Marty andSchwimmer is amusingly pathetic as the neurotic Melman. The best voiceover workcomes from the supporting players: Baron Cohen (creator of UK TV's Ali G) doesa very funny job playing the king of the lemurs with a Peter Sellers-styleIndian accent, and co-director McGrath channels Charlton Heston as thedetermined leader of the penguin gang.

Prod cos: DreamWorks Animation, PDI/DreamWorks.
Dist: DreamWorks (US), UIP (intl)
Prod: Mireille Soria.
Co-prod: Teresa Cheng.
Scr: Mark Burton & Billy Frolick, Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath.
Music: Hans Zimmer.
Ed: H Lee Peterson.
Prod des: Kendal Cronkhite-Shaindlin.
Visual effects supervisor: Philippe Gluckman.
Head of character animation: Rex Grignon.
Main cast (voices): Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada PinkettSmith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric The Entertainer, Andy Richter.