'Escape 2 Africa': The Hip Are Best When Shaking It
Friday, November 7, 2008
"Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" epitomizes the best and the worst of what animated filmmaking has become in an era dominated on the one hand by ever more sophisticated computerized imagery and, on the other, by the grasping, increasingly grating desire to be hip.
Filmed with impressive technical sophistication, this sequel to the 2005 hit about zoo animals on the lam admittedly possesses some dazzling visuals, right down to the hair on its main character's mane. But it also suffers from a plethora of subplots, suggestive humor and attempts to wink knowingly at parents yawning through yet another matinee with the kids. Which is a shame, because as far as little ones go, "Escape 2 Africa" will hook them with the boogieing animal tushies.
Those ample posteriors belong to Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), who as "Escape 2 Africa" literally takes off are finally leaving Madagascar to return to their home, the Central Park Zoo. (The movie might have been more accurately titled "Escape From Madagascar With an Unscheduled Stopover in Central Africa.")
Departing in a rickety plane repurposed by a team of resourceful penguins, with the lemur King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his factotum Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer) along for the ride, the group doesn't get far until the conveyance plummets to the ground. It's a credit to filmmakers Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath that a sequence that could easily traumatize a young audience is convincingly played for laughs. (McGrath, by the way, voices the chief penguin with hilarious drop-and-give-me-50 gruffness.)
It turns out that the menagerie has landed in the middle of continental Africa, where, as a harrowing prologue explains, Alex was born and cub-napped several years ago (an episode recounted in an alternately lyrical and harrowing prologue). And it's at this point that "Escape 2 Africa's" myriad storylines seem to multiply like so many wildebeest, with Alex reuniting with his parents (voiced by Bernie Mac and Sherri Shepherd), Marty discovering the comforts and challenges of fitting in with the herd, the hypochondriacal Melman becoming a tribal healer and facing his own possibly impending death, and Gloria finding love with a seductive hippo-on-the-make named Moto Moto, voiced by Black Eyed Peas singer Will.I.Am at his Barry White-est.
But wait, that's not all! Alex, who made a name for himself as a song-and-dance lion back in the Big Apple, is challenged to an alpha-cat duel by the super-macho Makunga (Alec Baldwin). Nana, the purse-wielding yenta from Yonkers, shows up on safari. Julien's ardent little stalker Mort (Andy Richter) makes an appearance. And the penguins busily enlist a tribe of local monkeys to fix the plane, only to get bogged down in labor negotiations at a crucial turning point. Eventually, all these busy plot lines meet up in "Escape 2 Africa," converging in a way that may not get points for elegance but that accomplishes the job at hand: setting up the sequel, which was reportedly underway when this movie began filming.
Fans of the first "Madagascar" will find much to enjoy in "Escape 2 Africa." For one thing, the animation bursts with detail, texture and color, bringing the kopjes, watering holes and plains of Africa to vivid life ("Escape 2 Africa" will be shown in Imax theaters as well as on conventional screens). What's more, the vistas and huge herd of galloping zebras and other animals are accompanied by an unusually stirring musical score by Hans Zimmer and Will.I.Am himself. And there are genuine moments of emotion within the tangle of story lines: The filmmakers' choice to cast Alex's parents with African American actors, with Stiller as their son, gives a transcultural flavor to their family reunion.
Even as "Escape 2 Africa" threatens to sink of its own overplotted weight, there are occasional moments of humor, and as in the first movie they're mostly provided by Cohen's outrageous King Julien, a fey, fast-talking fop with a pink plume on his head, and those tough-talking penguins. More regrettably, the "Madagascar" franchise continues the "Shrek"-inspired trend of making constant pop cultural references aimed at adults, which here range from "West Side Story" to "Survivor."
Then there's the tricky matter of the voice talent, which ideally should disappear as the actors delve deeply into their characters. (Quick, who played the sea turtle in "Finding Nemo"? Exactly.) But in "Escape 2 Africa," grown-ups may find themselves distracted by visualizing the real-life human actors delivering their lines. It may not be that amusing to watch Makunga rhapsodizing over the gift of a man-purse, but it's downright hilarious to imagine Baldwin in full "30 Rock" mode asking, "Does the strap adjust?"
It's all very meta, which probably accounts for why, midway through "Escape 2 Africa," one 7-year-old viewer pronounced the movie "boring." Still, even as jokes about mortality, monkey maternity leave and the Iraq war might have sailed over her little head, she wouldn't budge from her seat until the last strains of that diabolically catchy "I Like to Move It" song had faded from the sound system. Never underestimate the entertainment value of the boogieing tushie.
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (89 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for some mild crude humor.