Madagascar, before it arrives in Madagascar, creates a highly amusing, blissfully idealized vision of Manhattan, starting with the Central Park Zoo. That’s where we meet our main characters: Marty, a grumpy chatterbox of a zebra (voiced by Chris Rock), his complacent lion pal Alex (Ben Stiller), a hypochondriac giraffe named Melman (David Schwimmer at his most Eeyore-ishly sonorous), and Gloria the clever hippopotamus (Jada Pinkett Smith).
Roughly the first third of Madagascar is bright fun, as the animals, led by a discontented Marty, break out of the zoo to explore the world, which most immediately includes a ride on the subway (yes, Melman gets his long neck caught in a closing door) and a truly wonderful segment set in a gleaming Grand Central Terminal, the climax of which finds the globe clock on the information booth wrenched free and stuck over Melman’s head. Every New York City kid (or adult) who’s ever taken a train ride is going to have a big laugh at the beautifully rendered slapstick in this lovingly sustained scene—even the station’s wooden benches glow with freshly varnished comfiness.
After a misunderstanding gets the animals shipped off to the African country in the title, however, Madagascar becomes an odd duck of a movie. As you might expect, the city animals, spoiled by the care they get from Central Park, are soon hungry and panicked, especially when they encounter a wild tribe led by a wacky lemur voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen, better known to HBO viewers as Ali G. Madagascar is different from most recent cartoons for not having a scary villain (in fact, Alex, just because he’s a roaring lion, scares the Madagascar critters more than they scare him). That’s fine for the kiddies, and I was glad to see that Chris Rock and Pinkett Smith weren’t exploited to become a jive-talking zebra or a hip hippo. But Madagascar doesn’t have much narrative drive. It’s mainly just a series of slapstick scenes and inside jokes for grown-ups (a sly reference to The Twilight Zone, for example).
Oh, and caveat emptor: Selling the movie as “from the creators of Shrek and Shark Tale” is a tad misleading. What the phrase means is that Madagascar is a product of DreamWorks Animation SKG, which does indeed own those two films. But the directors here are Eric Darnell, who made the Woody Allen–voiced cartoon Antz, and Tom McGrath, who was an animator on the lousy Space Jam. When it comes down to it, much of Madagascar’s jungle look will remind TV watchers of DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg’s recent flop: the glossy, empty TV series Father of the Pride.