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Madagascar 2 Exceeds the Original

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
Directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath
Written by Etan Cohen
Dreamworks/Paramount, 2008

I have often railed against the Dreamworks machine, but this year, the company has produced two fine animated films: this summer’s Kung Fu Panda, and now, the sequel to a movie I highly disliked back in 2005.  They haven’t quite hit the Pixar level, but their current style mimics at least the very best thing about their films: the story is important, there is some heart, and the laughs come easier.

In this adventure, the lion Alex (Ben Stiller), the zebra Marty (Chris Rock), hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith), and giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer), along with lemur King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his assistant Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer) are about to slingshot a dilapidated plane back to New York, with help from the best part of the original flick, the penguins (led by Skipper, voiced with old-school rat-a-tat gusto by co-director McGrath).  This plan, of course, has no chance, the plane crash lands into the mainland part of Africa, the pridelands.  While the penguins enlist a bunch of monkeys to help them fix the plane, the four animals find a watering hole, where they find a bunch of their African brethren.

The crux of the story is Alex finding his father Zuba (the late Bernie Mac), whom he was separated from at a very young age.  Zuba is the alpha lion, the king of the jungle, and the reunion is a happy one.  But a la The Lion King, there is a crusty old lion Makunga (Alec Baldwin), who wants to find a way to usurp the throne.  The rule is, a lion has to fight his way into the pride or be banished.  Alex doesn’t catch wind that the contest is a fight, thinking it’s a dance-off, and is tricked into picking the most powerful lion in the group.  And of course, Alex is a domesticated Central Park Zoo lion and was beaten up by a granny in the original (and of course, this one).

Meanwhile, Marty tries to find originality in a sea of common zebras (all voiced by Rock), Gloria tries to find love with “playa” hippo Moto Moto (Will i Am), and Melman struggles with the idea that he might be dying, and that he might never find love with Gloria…and of course, I still struggle with that whole inter-species thing, but I guess that’s not the point.  Alex has to find redemption when Makunga takes over the king of the jungle duties.

The first thing that is done right is not over-expanding character roles that were popular in the first film, or trying to refer too much to the original.  I loved the penguins in the original Madagascar, and they probably have their own spinoff somewhere down the line, but being given them in small doses here and there ensures they don’t overextend their welcome.  The monkeys, and their throwaway storyline, is incredibly enjoyable.  The story, while harkening The Lion King, doesn’t make a ridiculous effort to satirize that flick.  It just echoes it in a comfortably familiar way.  The voice work is fun, the jokes don’t rely on smartass-ness.  It’s exactly the way all the other Dreamworks films should have been made.  I hope their breaking away from Paramount doesn’t mean the end of the kinds of animated films they’ve put out this year.  This is a breath of fresh air.

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