After the events of Madagascar 2, our AWOL camaraderie of zoological friends are running through the plains of Africa, patiently waiting for military genius and sometimes penguin, Skipper, to return from a jaunt in Monte Carlo with his band of black and white misfits. Patiently that is, except for Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), who is beginning to pine again for his rock at New York City Zoo. With no signs of the penguins returning, Alex gathers everyone – Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer), Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett-Smith) and lemur King Julian XIII (Sacha Baron Cohen) – for a retrieval mission to the French Riveria, with a hope of getting back home. Whilst there, they find themselves having to go undercover as circus animals to escape the machinations of Captain Chantel Dubois (Frances McDormand), an animal control officer intent on claiming Alex’s head.
We’ll admit it, we have a soft spot for the Madagascar series. Oh, they’re not perfect. You can hear the gear change from space when the narrative of the first shifts from Chris Rock’s wisecracking Marty the Zebra to Ben Stiller’s mopey Alex the Lion, and the second does suffer from a case of ‘How many celebrities can we fit in this thing anyway?’. However, we think the issue is that from some critics’ desire to make comparisons to the mighty arsenal of Pixar and, to a lesser extent, Madagascar’s own stable mates in the form of the Shrek franchise. Somehow conveniently forgetting that as well as making Shrek, DreamWorks also made Shrek 2-4 and Pixar’s record is somewhat blemished by the intolerable Cars and Cars 2 which proved that talking automobiles and Larry the Cable Guy as the lead is just one step too far.
Madagascar 3 feels very different from the first two. There’s sense of confidence that seemed to be missing from the others. It feels fully formed, as if everybody on board decided to ignore the critics and just got on with making a film. Sticking even closer to its Tex Avery and Chuck Jones roots than previous, the humour is broader, with an absurd awareness to it all. Things that deliberately make no sense are funnier because there are great pains to highlight the fact they make no sense. As an example, in dialogue reminiscent of Morgan Freeman’s curved bullets lecture in Wanted, the matter of why a tiger can leap through a wedding ring is concluded with, ‘It had never been done before! Because it was physically impossible’.
There’s a stronger focus on set pieces this time round, with a chase through Monte Carlo that should genuinely put The Bourne Legacy to shame. Unwilling to lose her hunt, Dubois powers on ensuring neither fish, walls or physics stand in her way.
However, with our heroes hiding out in a circus run by animals, Madagascar 3 suffers from one too many characters struggling for screen time. Whilst the new additions are welcome – Vinnie Jones as a knife-wielding puppy is a particular highlight – they often come at the expense of our heroes. Pinkett Smith and Schwimmer are left to do very little in a sub-plot that sees Melman learning to dance, whilst King Julian has been boiled down to singing pop songs during an undercooked love story. It just seems wrong to having Baron’s comic timing clear a path for Martin Short’s somewhat grating Italian sea lion.
Madagascar 3 is a fine example of quality family film making, that proves there is still room in this world for putting foolish wordplay and slapstick ahead of innuendo, like so many of its contemporaries fail to understand (Shrek – we’re looking at you). Despite the finality of its ending, we’re sure there will be a sequel just around the corner. If it maintains this kind of quality, then we’ll be first in line.