A Roar of Approval

Mane man: Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller) enjoys the perks of the Central Park Zoo, but all that changes when the wily penguins lead an escape.
Mane man: Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller) enjoys the perks of the Central Park Zoo, but all that changes when the wily penguins lead an escape. (Reuters)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 27, 2005

"Madagascar" continues a long, happy tradition of animated family movies, perfected every era or so by franchises like "Rocky and Bullwinkle," "Toy Story" and, most recently, "Shrek," that look like they were made for kids and sound like they were made for their parents.

Such are the ingredients for the happiest hours generations can spend together at the multiplex, when youngsters can laugh at the stretchy, squishy antics of anthropomorphized creatures while adults chuckle knowingly at their own pop culture references. It's a sure-fire combination, and "Madagascar" has it down to a genial, if occasionally rote, science. Boom, here comes an adorable zebra, running amok in New York's Grand Central Terminal, then boom, there's a funny lift from "American Beauty." Boom, there's a gangly giraffe stuck in a pipe, then boom, there's a witty homage to "Planet of the Apes." Or "Castaway." Or "Chariots of Fire." And so on, until it's impossible to keep track of just how many other movies are alluded to, nodded at or whiffed in the course of a scant hour and a half.

But no matter. Despite "Madagascar's" formulaic tendencies, it's a formula that works, so parents are urged to sit back, relax and enjoy -- the kids surely will. "Madagascar" is great good fun, not only because the filmmakers have enlisted some wonderful voice talent but also because the visuals truly are marvelous, combining the stylized exaggeration of the classical era with some breathtakingly meticulous draftsmanship. Just when a character with no more formal complexity than Yogi Bear is twisting himself into a physically improbable contortion comes a landscape that might have been painted by Henri Rousseau (who, along with Alfred Steiglitz, was reportedly one of the artists the filmmakers looked to for inspiration).

Chris Rock, who is far better used here than in "The Longest Yard," which also opens today, plays that adorable zebra, Marty, who lives a happy, cosseted life in the Central Park Zoo but longs to run free in the wild (as it is, he must content himself with a high-tech treadmill machine). When Marty confesses his desires to his best friend, a voluptuously maned lion named Alex (Ben Stiller), Alex can't see the appeal; he likes life in the zoo, especially the adoration of the crowds who come to see him roar and prance (after that, it's straight to the massage table, a mani-pedi and a good, thick steak).

Still, events conspire to put Marty and Alex, along with their friends Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), on a ship bound for a preserve in Kenya, until a scheming bunch of penguins commandeers the boat and heads it straight for Antarctica. In the confusion, the four mammals' crates go overboard and they fetch up on the beach of Madagascar, a lush and wondrous place where, Marty and his pals are shocked to learn, the weak are killed and eaten. (To get an idea of just how devoted to detail "Madagascar" is, take note of how Alex's perfectly blown-out mane -- which is reportedly composed of more than 50,000 individually drawn strands -- frizzes in the tropical humidity.)

Will the wild live up to Marty's dreams? Will Melman's allergies clear up? Will Alex, who is beginning to look at Marty with a distinctly carnivorous gleam, get voted off the island? All is revealed, and happily, in "Madagascar," which contains some pretty graphic law-of-the-jungle violence but keeps the humor reasonably clean and the story lighthearted.

And as is the way with these movies, for all the good work of its stars (Schwimmer is particularly appealing as the hypochondriacal Melman), the whole shebang is stolen outright by the little guys. In this case, that would be the penguins, who hijack not only the steamer but also every scene they're in, and a hilarious little creature named Julian, King of the Lemurs, who is voiced by the manically gifted actor Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G from HBO's "Da Ali G Show"). With another lemur played by Cedric the Entertainer as his straight man, Julian delivers nonstop patter in an indiscriminate Eurotrash accent, and the scenes in which he leads his massive-eyed minions in a wigged-out dance suggest dozens of little Peter Lorres on ecstasy.

It's all wildly fun and, along with such recent classics as "Shrek," "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles," "Madagascar" will surely go on to take a deserved place on millions of families' video shelves as a reliable Saturday night staple. They may all be cut from the same cloth -- digitally woven on a state-of-the-art desktop workstation, that is -- but so far, it seems far from fraying.

Madagascar (86 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild profanity, crude humor and some thematic elements.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company