Pleasant is the kindest way to describe Madagascar, the latest blockbuster from Dreamworks Animation. Painless. Ordinary. Mediocre. These words will also suffice. It's easily the weakest of the recent spate of big budget computer animated comedies. Not only can't it stand up to Shrek 2 or The Incredibles, it falls short of second-tier efforts like Shark Tale and this year's respectable British effort, Valiant. That's disappointing for a high profile summer release featuring the voice talents of a comedy dream team.
The story begins in New York's Central Park Zoo, where the undisputed star attraction is Alex the lion (voice of Ben Stiller). Alex loves life in the zoo - he's never happier than when he's performing for the crowds. His best friend Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) feels differently. Marty's just turned ten and he's feeling depressed that he's spent all those years in captivity without ever experiencing life in the wild. His pals, who also include Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett-Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) try to cheer him up but to no avail. On an impulse, Marty escapes from the zoo and wanders across Manhattan, his friends in hot pursuit.
The animals are recaptured but the zoo's owners assume they mustn't be happy in their cages and decide to release them in Africa. En route, their cargo ship is hijacked by a crack unit of penguin commandos, who set a new course for Antarctica. In the ensuing chaos, the crates containing Alex, Marty, Gloria and Melman fall overboard. The friends eventually wash up on a beach on the island of Madagascar, far from civilisation, where they're welcomed by a tribe of native lemurs led by the nutty King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen). The king's motives aren't entirely benevolent. He's decided that the large, scary-looking newcomers would make ideal protection from the island's other inhabitants: a pack of fierce, carnivorous hyenas.
Young kids will no doubt find Madagascar quite diverting - it's colourful and breezy and features cute animals they're sure to like (don't let them walk past any toy shops on the way home!) - but adults and older children will probably find themselves fidgeting and looking at their watches. The clever plotting, sharp characterisations and quickfire wit we've come to expect from the best animated films are in short supply.
The biggest problem for me is that the characters aren't very engaging. Only Ben Stiller's Alex is developed and even he becomes interesting only in the last half hour when the plot finally kicks into gear. Chris Rock is wasted in a mostly straight role, David Schwimmer predictably repeats his Ross-from-Friends routine for the umpteenth time while Jada Pinkett-Smith, the only non-comedian in the cast hardly registers. Sacha Baron Cohen does better as King Julien, earning a good few chuckles despite a silly and annoying accent. For one brief but funny musical interlude, Baron Cohen channels Ali G to belt out the dance anthem, "I like to move it". The few big laughs in the film tend to be throwaway gags - the way King Julien tests whether the newcomers are friendly and the punchline to the penguins' quest for Antarctica. I could have done with a few less movie parodies, especially those with absolutely no relevance to the material. Cast Away is logical enough but American Beauty?
OK, I understand the film is aimed primarily at children and I'm criticising it from an adult's point of view but since the crossover success of Beauty And The Beast in 1991, big animated releases like this have made a fair share of their money from kid-free evening showings and we're entitled to our points of view. As often as not, I find these sorts of animated films more enjoyable than most "grown-up" films - Finding Nemo remains one of my favourite movies of this decade. Madagascar by comparison is sloppy, unimaginative and dull. This one is best left to the little 'uns.