Low on the Food Chain

Zoo animals Marty (voice of Chris Rock), left, Alex (Ben Stiller), Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman (David Schwimmer) are out of their element after escaping to the wild in
Zoo animals Marty (voice of Chris Rock), left, Alex (Ben Stiller), Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman (David Schwimmer) are out of their element after escaping to the wild in "Madagascar." (Dreamworks Animation Skg)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 27, 2005

"MADAGASCAR," the new computer-animated feature from DreamWorks Animation SKG, is supposed to be a heartwarming story about how two animals, a lion and a zebra who have escaped from the Central Park Zoo to the wild, come to value their friendship (and a diet rich in sushi) over the fact that, according to the laws of nature, one is a predator and the other is, well, dinner. Somehow, though, the underwhelming, only fitfully amusing movie left me hungry for more.

More sense, for one thing.

Let's start with this: The desert island where Marty the zebra (voice of Chris Rock), Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) find themselves shipwrecked when the freighter they're on is hijacked by penguins (don't ask) actually turns out to be Madagascar, the island nation with a population of about 18 million people. So where are all the humans? When our four friends arrive, nobody seems to be home but several million lemurs, led by King Julian (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his sidekick, Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer). Best known for playing several recurring comic characters on "Da Ali G Show," Cohen's accent here sounds like a cross between generic Spanish with a touch of West Indies, Apu from "The Simpsons" and Jar Jar Binks. Beyond being just plain bizarre, it isn't all that funny.

The other main species on the island is something called a foosa, a type of predator related to the mongoose that was the previous main threat to the lemur's idyllic lifestyle, until the arrival of Alex, that is.

Happy to see Alex at first, because he scares off the foosa, the lemurs soon come to look like so many New York strip steaks to their suddenly savage -- and very hungry -- friend, as do herbivores Marty, Melman and Gloria. The film's central conflict, such as it is, arises when Alex, who is no longer getting three square meals of red meat a day from his zookeepers, is torn between his animal need to dine out on his pals, literally, and his desire to be loyal. Welcome to "Wild Kingdom," kiddie-style.

Now, I don't know about you, but as a child I always found those televised nature shows in which some poor gazelle gets swallowed by a cougar pretty upsetting. In other words, I understood what was going on, and it bugged me. But the blithe and disturbingly unanalytical manner in which this particular aspect of the "circle of life" is handled by the makers of "Madagascar" is equally troubling, simply from a storytelling perspective.

Yes, yes, I know it's only a cartoon, but the way the whole eat-or-be-eaten issue is resolved at the end (or I should say left unresolved) is a flat-out cop-out. I mentioned sushi earlier, but are we meant to accept that fish don't have feelings because they don't talk? I have news for you, kids: neither do zebras. Without giving too much away, it's safe to say that the movie fails to satisfy on such a fundamental level that it either must be setting itself up for a "Madagascar 2" or must hope that the audience isn't paying too much attention. I vote for the latter.

To be sure, many of the youngest children watching will be perfectly happy to laugh at the pee, poo and flatulence jokes. And there are occasional moments of genuine cleverness. For all the grown-up caregivers who are sitting in the theater, however -- the ones for whom, presumably, all the hipper-than-thou references to HMOs, Tom Wolfe, "Planet of the Apes," "Chariots of Fire" and Washoe the sign-language-using chimp are meant -- it would be nice if the movie didn't insult our intelligence by withholding a real ending in favor of one that, in more ways than one, merely runs out of gas.

MADAGASCAR (PG, 86 minutes) -- Contains cartoon violence, some humor centered on excretory functions, a bit of mild vulgar language and thematic material related to the fact that animals eat one another. Area theaters.

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