FILM REVIEW: MADAGASCAR

By Allison Benedikt

Chicago Tribune Staff Writer

2 stars

DreamWorks' latest computer-animated film harkens back to a quieter, simpler time - when men were men and cartoons were two-dimensional talking animals, not E! talking heads.

"Madagascar," with its intentionally retro aesthetic, shuns much of the street-savvy navel-gazing so crucial to DreamWorks predecessors "Shrek" and "Shrek 2." Those films made bundles but relied far too heavily on winks and nods, with No. 2 drooping under the weight of its own pop-culture proficiency (despite the priceless "COPS" satire, with Puss in Boots getting busted in possession of a dime bag of catnip).

But no more. There's nary a word about Britney and K-Fed in this tale of zoo animals gone wild - which is a relief until you realize that directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath just traded one muse for another: "Madagascar" is wholly and detrimentally dependent on its stars.

Chris Rock plays Marty, a zebra with a zest for life and an itch to break free of his Central Park Zoo confines. His best friend is Alex (Ben Stiller), a pampered celebrity lion with no use for the world at large as long as he's getting prime steaks for dinner and big crowds at his afternoon show. Sidekicks Melman and Gloria are a whiny, hypochondriac giraffe and a sassy rhino, respectively (guess which one David Schwimmer plays?), and together the foursome (rounded out by Jada Pinkett Smith) live in the lap of luxury - because if we've learned anything lately, it's that zoos are very nice places indeed.

Having a bit of a midlife crisis on his 10th birthday, Marty flies the coop, heading down Park Avenue for Grand Central. His pals eventually find him, as do the coppers, and the zoo crew ends up crated on a ship to Africa. When a band of AWOL zoo penguins takes the helm and steers the boat toward Antarctica, the city dwellers shipwreck and end up stranded off the coast of Madagascar, otherwise known as The Wild.

Will they adapt? Will they hear that jungle rhythm? Will they shed their New York accents? Will they please make Schwimmer stop whining?

I'm not sure if it's the old-timey look (the animators pay homage to Warner Brothers cartoon legend Chuck Jones and company, which works well in the Grand Central scene), the far-too-traditional story or the broad, bland comedy, but the film never gets going. It's too slow and plodding for kids - even too obvious - with pizzazz relegated to its celebrity voices, most of whom both young and old have heard enough from in the past few years. (Sorry, Ben, it's true.)

Like Broadway, with its current affinity for Hollywood razzle-dazzle, animation has a serious star problem. You've got to wonder how all the great voice actors are getting by now that Cameron Diaz and Antonio Banderas are in on the game. And how limiting it must be for animators to create characters from Ross Geller instead of from scratch, with gestures and mannerisms so actor-specific that we know them by heart.

Upon hearing me grumble, a theater-minded colleague pointed out that without, say, a Denzel Washington in "Julius Caesar" on Broadway, there'd be no "Julius Caesar" on Broadway - and no working cast and crew.

All true. Without big names on the mic, there likely wouldn't be as much family fare at the multiplex, or as much work for talented animators at DreamWorks and Pixar and Disney. But ignoring that, think back to the characters you loved as a kid. My favorites were the Muppets, each as weird and distinct and hilarious as the next.

In "Madagascar," Sacha Baron Cohen is the only one to even come close, with his odd and effeminate portrayal of King Julien, the loony leader of the island's lemurs. His performance works because it leaves room for imagination. It works because it's original and strange. And maybe, just maybe, because Cohen is only famous for HBO.

"Madagascar"

Directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath; written by Darnell, McGrath, Mark Burton and Billy Frolick; edited by H. Lee Peterson; production designed by Kendal Cronkhite-Shaindlin; visual effects supervised by Philippe Gluckman; art directed by Shannon Jeffries; music by Hans Zimmer; produced by Mireille Soria. A DreamWorks release; opens Friday, May 27. Running time: 1:26. MPAA rating: PG (mild language, crude humor and some thematic elements).

Alex the Lion - Ben Stiller

Marty the Zebra - Chris Rock

Melman the Giraffe - David Schwimmer

Gloria the Hippo - Jada Pinkett Smith

King Julien - Sacha Baron Cohen



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