The "Madagascar" franchise, with its skeletal, if somewhat clever plot mechanics (animals from the Central Park zoo are mistakenly shipped to exotic lands – first Madagascar, then Africa proper – all the while longing for their urban environments), and characters almost exclusively defined by outdated ethnic stereotypes (mostly tired New Yorkers-as-neurotic-Jews-or-loud-African-Americans stuff), is arguably the least ambitious or satisfying of DreamWorks Animation’s admittedly low-wattage carousel of animated tent poles (which now include “Shrek” and its off-shoots, “How to Train Your Dragon,” and “Kung Fu Panda”). And while “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” isn’t some kind of triumph, it is a surprisingly satisfying romp, especially when it keeps its manic pacing up.
“Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” begins with a kind of “Previously on ‘Madagascar’…” update, which you’d be tempted to call lazy but with a series of movies as instantly forgettable as these, you’ll probably welcome the recap (especially since matters have been further complicated by the admittedly exemplary “Penguins of Madagascar” cartoon series on Nickelodeon). In short: our animal protagonists (Ben Stiller as Alex the lion, Chris Rock as Marty the zebra, David Schwimmer as Melman the giraffe and Jada Pinkett-Smith as Gloria the hippo) have been stranded in Africa (where the last film, “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” took place) after their penguin cohorts have flown off to Monte Carlo in a monkey-powered plane (don’t ask). The animals, longing for the creature comforts of Manhattan (after the other animals make a mud reproduction of the city, Alex goggles at the attention to detail: “Nine Duane Reades on the same street!”), decide to go intercept the penguins and use the plane to return to New York, once and for all!
But, of course, the subtitle is ‘Europe’s Most Wanted,’ and after an “Ocean’s Twelve”-y interlude in a Monte Carlo casino, their plane crashes and the animals are, once again, marooned on foreign soil. Further complicating matters is the fact that they’re being doggedly pursued by Captain Chantel DuBois, a kind of officious Cruella DeVil-type animal control officer voiced with relish (and a zippy French accent) by Frances McDormand. Seeking a way to travel through the country incognito (and eventually get back to New York), they team up with a group of traveling circus animals (Bryan Cranston is a Russian tiger named Vitaly, Martin Short is an Italian seal named Stefano and Jessica Chastain is some kind of cat from some country named Gia). And that’s pretty much as far as it goes concerning the movie’s actual “plot.”
The first act or so of “Madagascar 3” can be defined by what the penguins would describe as “zesty exuberance” – it kind of pinballs from one joke to the next, with a smattering of smart visual gags sprinkled in for good measure. These might not make much sense (how the hell did they get to Monte Carlo in the first place? It took a plane for the penguins to get there but they just kind of show up), but there is a kind of spring-loaded rapid-fire quality to their delivery that is pretty damn enjoyable. There are also some agreeably strange divergences, like the love affair between a delusional ring-tailed lemur voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen falling in love with a giant oafish circus bear that rides a tiny bicycle.
While the series has never been known for being visually dazzling (the character designs, for the most part, remain a painfully under-stylized eyesore), there are moments of oomph in the first section of the movie, too, particularly when they’re careening around Rome (they set up their circus tent inside the coliseum). You can tell the animators visited the actual location and took really, really detailed notes. (Even though, as is in the case with every DreamWorks animated movie released in 3D, there are too many moments where shots are held for seconds too long just to show off the boring dimensionality.) The voice cast seems enlivened by the change of venue too, with Stiller in particular getting off zingers with aplomb and the rest of the cast, both new and old alike, chugging along amiably.
As the movie wears on, however, the charm fades. The picture suffers from unsightly pacing issues, sometimes rocketing along and other times pausing for inordinate amounts of time, mostly for moments of character development that require a stop-in-its-tracks halt (as is the case with Vitaly’s backstory, which involves his circus trick – squeezing through incredibly small rings). You can tell, too, that the story was conceived with Jeffrey Katzenberg, sitting in his office (paneled, it’s imagined, in solid gold) and throwing pencils into the ceiling, saying, “Let’s have the next one be set in Europe! And we’ll put in something about a circus! It’ll be like a Fellini movie! Kids love Fellini!” Except, you know, they don’t.
And the looseness of the concept, becoming, structurally at least, a series of increasingly uninteresting vignettes, eventually threatens to dismantle the whole movie, particularly when the movie *uh, spoiler, we guess?* returns our animals to their New York home. This should be a moment of catharsis and understand, imbibed with genuine, painful emotion. Instead, the emotional stuff is quickly, poorly dispensed with, so that the filmmakers (co-directors Eric Barnell, Tom McGrath, and Conrad Vernon) can loudly indulge in a nonsensical circus performance set to Katy Perry’s “Firework” (just like “Rust & Bone!”) which, lit up with rings of glowing neon, is designed like Cirque du Soleil by way of “TRON Legacy.” By this point the influence of co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach, who at least once during the film’s production was the sole credited writer, has all but dissipated, the movie seeming more like a traveling circus than a locked-down production (Cranston and Chastain, for instance, were only hired in January; usually animated movies begin with the voice tracks and take years of on-again/off-again recording to complete). You get the sense he was largely responsible for the tiger’s failed-glory backstory, and for some of the more barbed jokes about New York, but you’d think he would have given some emotion to go along with the zings. [B]