New York City may be the greatest city on earth, but not if you're a zoo-bound zebra who pines for the wild. In Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath's animated comedy Madagascar, Marty the zebra, and several of his woolly colleagues at the Central Park Zoo, idly ponder what it really means to be themselves. For the leonine Alex, being the zoo's star attraction is enough; for the hypochondriac giraffe, Melman, the facility's constant medical attention is a plus.
But a posse of crazy penguins help the disaffected Marty break out, forcing the zoo gang, including plainspoken Gloria the hippo, to take to Manhattan's narrow canyons in search of him. Needless to say, plans go very awry -- here, there and off the eastern coast of Africa -- and the foursome find themselves washed up on the shores of Madagascar. The island is dominated by lemurs who engage in jungledelic freak-a-thon dance parties. (I assure you that the lemur version of "I Like To Move It, Move It" will ping around in your skull for days.)
As the New York animals adjust to their newfound freedom and develop their innate wildness, troubles arise. (Say, wouldn't a lion eat a zebra?) Then again, one shouldn't fret too much about zoological destiny in a film where penguins hijack an ocean freighter.
Madagascar is DreamWorks' latest bid in the animation wars. The studio had huge critical hits with both Shrek films but took some brickbats for last year's Shark Tale, which was frenetic, jivey and pandered shamelessly. Madagascar falls somewhere in the middle. It can't resist a few winks at easy pop-culture targets and the odd bit of homage, but it relies chiefly on its own well-paced story. That said, it's a tale that will appeal more to kids than adults, since it lacks the depth and the organic humor of Shrek. Madagascar's jokes are mostly of the one-liner variety, and a fair number revolve around bodily functions.
One disappointment is that the casting for the primary vocal talent usually reinforces the shtick of the actors involved: Chris Rock is the feisty zebra; Ben Stiller plays the self-absorbed lion; Jada Pinkett-Smith snaps as the sassy hippo; and as the neurotic giraffe, David Schwimmer whines away. So hurrah for Sacha Barton Cohen, the English comedian best known for his alter ego Ali G, who gives voice to the lively king of the lemurs, Julien. As befits Madagascar's geographic location, Julien speaks in a captivating sing-song -- a little bit French, a dash of the Indian sub-continent, the squeaky purr of a small furry animal, all channeled through the manic perkiness of a creature whose eyes are too big and too bright. This dude was born to be wild.