DreamWorks // 2005 // 86 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // December 12th, 2005
From the studio that brought you Shrek and Shark Tale!
Dreamworks animation studio takes another stab at CGI infused films with the 2005 hit Madagascar. The film features talking animals with human traits that must overcome insurmountable odds to, oh heck, I think we've all seen this story roughly six-dozen ways to Sunday throughout the years. Madagascar is now available on DVD, so get your kids ready for the adventure of a weekday night.
Alex the lion (Ben Stiller, Meet the Fockers), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith, The Matrix Reloaded), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock, The Longest Yard), and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer, TV's Friends) are happy and content living the good life in a local New York zoo. They're groomed, fed hearty meals, and adored by the visiting crowds. But Marty yearns for something more, something fulfilling. After his tenth birthday arrives, Marty decides he needs to find out what lies beyond the zoo. Thus begins a series of misadventures (started by a group of Stalag 17-like penguins looking to escape to Antarctica) that takes Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria from their posh urban surroundings to the wild uncertainty of Madagascar!
Let me be the first to admit that I really, really disliked Shark Tale. That particular Dreamworks animated kids flick was, to put it nicely, cow dung. My grievances with the film are many, not the least of which was mismatching A-level actors with their animated character counterparts. Listen, if you want to make a Will Smith movie that just oozes Will Smithness, I'm all for it. An animated movie, on the other hand, is an altogether different beast.
When you have actors like Smith, Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie, and Jack Black in an animated kid's movie just because they command top dollar, it doesn't not mean they necessarily fit the story's bill. Shark Tale truly felt like it was made solely on the basis the filmmakers could get those particular stars; I can see the studio meeting now: "Who cares if the story stinks or the voices don't match the characters? We got Will Smith!" Movies like Shark Tale could take a lesson from Pixar, a studio that routinely churns out far superior animated films that try to match the talent with the movies, not the other way around. Prime examples: Albert Brooks in Finding Nemo, Craig T. Nelson in The Incredibles, and Dave Foley in A Bug's Life. None of those actors are considered $20 million dollar stars, but that's okay because they were exactly what each respective film needed.
Which brings me to Dreamworks's 2005 blockbuster (sigh) Madagascar, a movie that is better than Shark Tale yet never as good as the previously mentioned Pixar films (heck, even Fox's far funnier Ice Age is two steps beyond most of Dreamworks movies). Madagascar suffers from one of the same problems as Shark Tale: the actors are too recognizable as the animated animals. It's not that the actors are particularly horrible in their roles, it's that you instantly recognize their voices, which makes it difficult to separate the star from the role they are playing.
I liked the characters in this film, but I didn't truly love them. Alex the lion, played by a rather bland Ben Stiller, is the least interesting of the animals. He's supposedly the lead, but comes off as the one guy the writers mostly ignored (or maybe it's Stiller's seemingly half-hearted readings). Chris Rock's Marty the zebra is, to say the least, irritating -- in the past I've found Rock's humor to be mildly funny, but his voice...well, there's just something about it that rubs me the wrong way. Jada Pinkett Smith (best known as Will's wife) is just sort of there as Gloria the hippo. That leaves David Schwimmer as Melman the giraffe, whose constant neurosis are the funniest thing about the film. (When Melman finds out he's moving to another zoo, he worries that other zoo's won't be able to afford his medical bills and he'll have to change to an HMO.) There are other periphery characters -- including Sacha Baron Cohen (better known as his alter ego, Ali G) as the leader of the lemurs, and Cedric the Entertainer (Barbershop) as his sidekick -- but it's the four main animals whom the film revolves around.
After a bit of pondering, I've realized why Madagascar doesn't instill the awe of movies like Finding Nemo; it doesn't have a solid basis in reality. To be specific, it doesn't connect emotionally with the audience. Nemo, under its light surface, had a story about family members trying to find each other. I think that, on various levels, everybody can relate with that. Madagascar's theme -- animals trying to find their way back to New York -- is buried under too much cartoon silliness. I never once felt bad for these animals, even when Hans Zimmer's music score swelled to let me know that a sad, lonely lion sitting on a beach should bring me to tears (it didn't). I enjoyed some of the Hollywood in-jokes (including references to movies likePlanet of the Apes, American Beauty, and Chariots of Fire), but it was never enough to sustain my attention to the end. The film is under an hour and a half long, and by the midway point I was ready for it to be over.
Kids will most likely enjoy this movie. Adults will find it mildly amusing but middling; they just won't want to sit through it over and over again (I've sat through Finding Nemo half a dozen times and still never tire of its magic). If you're hitting the rental shelves and all the good Disney movies are gone, Madagascar will suffice. But isn't life too short to just have a movie "suffice?"
Madagascar is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Though I'm not 100% thrilled with the movie, I can't complain about the transfer -- Madagascar looks uniformly great. Dreamworks transfer is super solid with bright, bustling colors and dark black levels. Not a hint of grain, dirty or any other imperfections were spotted in the picture. Overall this is a homerun for TVs everywhere.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in English and French, as well as Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround in English and Spanish. Much like the video portions of the disc, the 5.1 sound mix is excellent. There are a bevy of surround sounds and directional effects to be found in the film (especially when the animals get to the island) and the tracks are all clear of any hiss or distortion. Also included are English, French and Spanish subtitles.
There are a few extra features on this disc, most notably an amusing commentary track with the penguin characters from the film (boy, with March of the Penguins and now this movie, those little tuxedo birds sure are popular). The yak track is entertaining at first, then grows steadily tiresome. Various games are also available (like "Fossa Whack" and "Learn to Draw!") but they are aimed squarely at the tyke set (as is "Crack the Code," a goofy feature with the penguins). Three featurettes ("Behind the Crates," "The Tech of Madagascar," and "Mad Mishaps") give you insight into how the film was created, though they aren't as in-depth as other technology-focused featurettes on more adult oriented DVDs. Also included on this disc are some extra bonus trailers for other Dreamworks family films.
Madagascar is a great looking movie that has an only so-so story. The film was a box office hit, so get ready for Madagascar 2 in the coming years!
"Eh" is the best thing I can say about Madagascar.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Penguin Commentary Track
* Various Madagascar Games
* "Behind the Crates" Featurette
* "The Tech of Madagascar" Featurette
* "Mad Mishaps" Featurette
* Crack The Code Penguin Game
* Bonus Trailers
* Official Site