I won't mention Shark Tale...I won't mention Shark Tale...please God let me not mention Shark Tale...
New York...the zoo and Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock) is having a mid-life crisis. Already ten years old and feeling that he has accomplished nothing, he dreams of running wild through the jungle, much as a zebra should, but every time he wakes, he sees only the cold grey of the city. His best friends are those in whom he confides, Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), who is the main attraction in the zoo, Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer), but they simply can't see what Marty's problem is. As Alex reminds him as he holds a juicy steak aloft, can you get steak in the wild? As the star, Alex loves the people!
Then four penguins tunnel out of the park on their way to Antarctica and they inspire Marty to do likewise. Not quite as sharp as the penguins, Marty simply skips the zoo hoping to catch the train our of Grand Central Station but when Alex, Melman and Gloria, as well as a pair of errant monkeys, go after him, they're the cause of a panic in the station. Labelled as dangerous animals who are no longer of use to the zoo, they're boxed up and shipped out to Kenya but the penguins have other ideas. Escaping from their box and taking over the ship, they divert it to a more southerly destination, causing Marty, Melman, Gloria and Alex to fall off the ship and into the water, where, a day or two later, they wash up on the beach on Madagascar...
Having reviewed Valiant earlier in the month, it's odd to come back to an animated film where one has the same concerns, that of character and voice acting. In terms of the script, there's very little to fault in Madagascar - it is funny, imaginative and has a nicely drawn storyline that has the audience care about the characters in spite of their flaws. Melman, for example, is a hypochondriac who worries incessantly about his next doctor's appointment whilst Alex is a vain, show-offy lion whose trip to the wild culminates in him realising that he is a natural predator and that he wants to eat his friends. There can't be many films, outside of those concerning cannibals or zombies in which one of the main characters dribbles at the thought of consuming his best friend but Madagascar manages to make this both worrying and funny at the same. Melman, Alex, Gloria and Marty all do bad things - Marty, despite being the hero of the film, may have put all of their lives in danger with his escaping from the zoo - but the script has them realise this and look for ways in which to help one another out. Madagascar is simply a very charming movie that gets ample laughs with its twist on the fish-out-of-water story and, yes, it's more than capable of keeping kids entertained throughout its eighty-six minute running time.
But, as adults, what exactly are we laughing at sometimes? When Alex preens in front of the audience at the zoo, are we only laughing because the character has been voiced by Ben Stiller and we remember his similar turn in Zoolander. Is David Schwimmer's Melman a natural fit with the others or is he simply Ross from Friends moved out of one side of Central Park, Central Perk even, to another. And is that good comedy or is it just a lazy appropriation of a star name to give the audience something to hook into? I suspect it's the latter, which is why the four main characters are the least successful in the film. In a way, they're too familiar and, in the case of Jada Pinkett Smith's Gloria, dull and I found myself laughing more at Ben Stiller's usual schtick than his character although, to be fair, his sadness at having to effectively imprison himself in the wild, much like he was in the zoo in New York, so as not to eat his friends, was touching.
When Madagascar tries for comedy without the safety of these characters, though, it is very successful and sometimes hugely funny. The four penguins, succinctly described by Kevin O'Reilly in his cinema review as a crack commando unit, are really the best thing in the film and are amongst the more successfully realised characters in a recent animated feature. From their very first moment onscreen with three of them playing to the crowds whilst a fourth works quietly behind them tunnelling, Great Escape-style, with a plastic spoon, they're an inspired creation who work to a mix of incompetence, good fortune and devilish trickery in which everything comes good for them. Possibly not their trip to Antarctica, I admit, but certainly in everything else, including their hijacking of the ship, accomplished via the tying up of the crew and, in one of the film's best moments, the cracking of the ship's access codes by randomly hopping about on a computer keyboard. Almost as good are the two monkeys - one is well-spoken and genteel but cannot read whilst the other can and has been taught sign language but is filthy and obsessed with flinging poo.
Of course, for a British audience, Sacha Baron Cohen's performance will be of more than a passing interest and it's good to note that he is more than a match for Chris Rock and Ben Stiller. Indeed, should he want it, his performance here should guarantee him future voiceover work as, musical interlude aside, he's consistently funny and, because of his accent, almost unrecognisable. His description of the four zoo animals as a bunch of pansies has something of the schoolyard about it whilst his whilst is revealing of the people on the island as not being a very lively bunch is a laugh-out-loud moment.
There aren't, though, enough such moments from the four main members of the cast and Madagascar is a little uneven between the comedy highlights of the penguins, monkeys and King Julien and his less-than-respectful sidekick Maurice. Otherwise, the problem of Dreamworks not trusting their audience to remain interested in their animated films is one that continues into Madagascar from the hit-and-miss Shrek 2 with the constant barrage of jokes, movie parodies and action being their policy of ensuring no one gets bored. But, at times, it's often all too much. Still, it's not a bad film and, indeed, often it's a very good one but it's inconsistent and Dreamworks still have a little to learn before they produce something that is of the equal of Monsters, Inc. or The Incredibles.
Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1, there really is little to fault with the quality of the picture with it simply being an excellent transfer. The image is bright, stable and clear, there's a sharpness that allows the viewer to pick out small details in the background and the whole film is just very pretty.
Following on from Valiant, where the water of the English channel was superbly animated, Madagascar's Atlantic ocean is just as good, which suggests that CG water is now almost indistinguishable from the real thing, with the churning water being exaggerated for impact rather than due to any limitations in the process. Elsewhere, though, the animals have been adapted as cartoon creations, complete with swirling, angular nostrils and extra-fluffy fur. If this mix of natural settings and comic characters sounds jarring, it isn't and the entire film is really rather seamless.
The default Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is equally as good with there being obvious use of the subwoofer and surround channels and seamless panning of the soundtrack across the front three channels.
Feature Commentary: Directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, who also contributed the voice of Skipper, have recorded this commentary and, unfortunately, like a lot of commentaries that accompany animated films, it's really quite dull. As directors, they're clearly much more concerned with the technology, the animation and, to a certain degree, the characterisation and so there are only occasional flickers of humour. Still, they do explain much about the production and the detail behind it and one cannot fault Dreamworks for including it.
The Penguins in A Christmas Caper (12m10s): Apparently, this was shown in cinemas before Madagascar, which would have done the main feature no favours, and stars the four penguins one Christmas before their escape from the zoo. As they plan their seasonal jollies, one sees a very sad looking polar bear and sets out to buy him a present but as the others attempt a rescue, they come up against a vicious poodle owned by the equally vicious old woman who assaulted Alex in Grand Central Station.
Mad Mishaps (1m30s): Offering a glimpse of what happens when the rendering software doesn't quite remain within our understanding of how objects behave, this short reveals errors in the production process.
Meet the Cast (7m46s): Want to know what Chris Rock and Ben Still think of their characters? Welcome to a Meet The Cast feature on the DVD of an animated film. There is no Sacha Baron Cohen but everyone else is here, which is more than you can say about there being any actual insights into the voice acting.
Behind The Crates (23m15s): Featuring more interviews with the voice talent, as well as the animators and directors, this gives a good overview of the film without really giving much away. As such, it feels light but, equally, many making-of documentaries for animated movies can be excessively dry in comparison to the actual and this probably strikes the right balance between that and being short of actual information.
The Tech of Madagascar (4m59s): It could almost be sponsored by HP given the frequency with which the corporation is mentioned and, just to illustrate the point, we see quite a bit of the HP render farm used in the making of Madagascar. This is, though, not a terribly interesting feature and probably best passed by to get to the commentary.
Penguin Chat (8m42s): Have I said that these characters were the highlight of the film enough times? Well, let this be once more as the penguins return for a commentary over their scenes only. Similar to Samuel L Jackson on the DVD of Deep Blue Sea, whereupon he left after his character died, the penguins offer a commentary over their scenes alone. Good? No, not really given that the lack of a script results in something that's not particularly funny but, despite that, there are still more laughs in this than are provided by Melman throughout the entire film.
Enchanted Island (7m50s): You couldn't really have a DVD release of Madagascar without a look at the island that inspired it and with an interview with Jeffrey Katzenberg, this feature does just that. Granted, it does wrap up the factual content quite early on to simply get on with yet more talk on the making of the film but for the first two minutes or so, it's interesting.
Previews (2m46s): This includes trailers from Shrek 2 and the awful, awful Shark Tale...I tried, honest I did.
Cast, Filmmakers and Production Notes: These sections include articles on the making of the film and the actors who voiced the main characters. There is also a Galleries section that allows you to look through much of the material produced during the design stage of the production.
Easter Egg (2m59s): Should you find this - it's on the main menu - you will be treated to a short technical reel that deconstructs a number of scenes to illustrate how they were rendered.
Dreamworks Kids: This section includes those special features that will be more of interest to kids, including a Music Video (2m50s) of I Like To Move It, Move It, DVD-ROM content (such printables as a calendar, colouring-in pictures and stickers) and a set of such simple games as Foosa Wack, Marty's Birthday Wish and a trivia game. There is even the chance to learn to draw the Madagascar characters
Crack The Code: Find all of the clues within the menus and you'll have cracked the code to open up a mini game to allow the penguins to take over the ship.
It's...not bad, not bad at all and certainly kept my kids entertained. I suspect, though, that there will be many who are nonplussed by it and who feel that it's just one more computer-animated film to add to an ever-increasing pile. I feel it's better than most CG animated films but, similarly, were it hand-drawn, would it stand out as much as it does or are the beautifully rendered visuals giving it more of an impact?
Children, however, do love it and those that have seen it in my house since taking delivery of it remained quiet throughout. There remain touches of adult humour in the film but they're much less frequent than in Shrek, for instance, which leads me to suggest that this really is one that's for the kids.
Last updated: 25/04/2018 12:20:39