Chief Justice Michael Stailey will never again underestimate the cunning intellect of a penguin.
Our review of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (Blu-Ray), published February 9th, 2009, is also available.
We like to move it move it.
Borrowing a little too heavily from Disney's The Lion King and cramming far too many storylines in 90 minutes, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa gets by on exceptional characterizations, great performances, and playing up to an audience already hungry for more animal antics.
Facts of the Case
The Fab Four—Alex, Marty, Gloria, and Melman—are back in action. After a brief vacation in Madagascar, New York's finest are hopping a plane back home…or so they think. Penguin Airlines doesn't have much of a track record; the African animal reserve they crash into is suffering from a power struggle; the American tourists are wreaking havoc on the prideland; and friendships will be put to the test, if everyone is to survive. Ooh, such drama.
After several valiant efforts, Jeffrey Katzenberg's Dreamworks Animation crawled out of Shrek's rotting shadow with Madagascar. While not operating on the same playing field as Pixar, the slapstick comedy, over the top characters, and big name stunt casting struck a nerve with families and kids looking for a universal theatrical good time. Hollywood being what it is, any box office hit deserves a sequel or two or three, so into production went Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. Much like their animated penguin counterparts, co-pilots Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath returned to the helm and marshaled their troops for another trip to the watering hole, bringing on Tropic Thunder's Etan Cohen to craft the tale.
The Madagascar franchise is what it is, good family fun that looks great and delivers the laughs. Yes, the boys use The Lion King to bookend the tale—Zuba (the late Bernie Mac) squares off against Makunga (Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock) in much the same way as Mustafa and Scar…although no animals were harmed in the filming of this tale. Yes, there is a hell of a lot to keep track of—Alex and his parents, Marty and his identity crisis, Gloria and her quest for love, Melman finding his place in the world, the Penguins mission, the American tourists fight for survival, Mort's quest to keep up, and so on, and so on, and so on. But, in the end, those 90 min fly by, under the sheer rapid fire succession of gags, jokes, and plot points. Kids will love it, parents can trust it, and unlike other Dreamworks pics that rely too much on dated pop humor, this one holds up to minimal migraine inducing repeat viewing. It's Will.I.AM's "Traveling Song" that will ultimately do parents in.
Animation lovers will find a wealth of inspiration to take in. Hair and fur, water and grass, depth of field, and facial emotion are all exceptionally well done. The lighting, the detail, the camera movement, and principal character design help create an immersive world in which to play, but it's the performances that seal the deal.
Alec Baldwin is quickly becoming the heir apparent to William Shatner for richly cheesy supporting roles. David Schwimmer shines, lending Melman the best elements of Ross (Friends) and playing extremely well off of Jada Pinkett's Gloria. Chris Rock (Marty) and Ben Stiller (Alex) have their own character conflict, but Ben shrinks in presence of Alec, Bernie, and Sherri Shepherd (Mom). The Simba similarities were too distracting, making Alex even less interesting to follow. I found myself looking forward to more of Nana (Elisa Gabrielli), the Penguins, the Monkeys, and Mort (Andy Richter), and less of King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer). Nickelodeon was drawn to the Penguins too, which is why they've been given their own television series.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer is crystal clear, diffusing the background action to make the principal focus pop. For someone who has become spoiled by Blu-ray, I never found myself bemoaning the fact I wasn't reviewing the film in high-def. The African color palate is awash in a sea of browns, greens, yellows, and blues. The Dolby 5.1 audio is quite robust. Not a ton of rear speaker action, but the drums keep the subwoofer busy, and the separation between the front three speakers seems to sport a more effective mix for home presentation than many new live action releases.
Bonus materials include an engaging commentary track by Darnell, McGrath, and producers Mireilla Soria and Mark Swift. They do drop out on occasion, getting lost in the film, but the insight and passion for the project that comes through is well worth a listen for wannabe animators and filmmakers. Five featurettes provide an EPK look behind the scenes. "It's a Family Affair" talks with the voice cast and shows clips from their recording sessions. "Making Of" gets more into story development and technical challenges. "Crash Landing" focuses solely on the genius of the plane crash sequence. "African Adventure" documents the production team's research trip to Africa. "Jambo Jambo" teaches you a bit of Swahili, very little of which makes it into the film. "Test Flight of Air Penguin" is another lame set top game. Why do they bother with these things? "Mad Music" showcases four music videos and the obligatory Dreamworks Animation jukebox. (Yawn…)
Sorry. Nodded off there for a second.
The real added value of this release is the two-pack edition, which comes with The Penguins of Madagascar, a preview of the mighty midgets' television debut. Two 12-minute adventures are on board, returning our fearless foursome to their original NYC zoological digs, with King Julien, Maurice, and Mort in tow. Not unexpectedly, the visuals are less impressive (almost rubbery), but the characterizations are spot on and the stories simple but engaging. "Popcorn Panic" sets the boys in a race against Julien, when zookeeper Alice outlaws any popcorn being fed to the animals. In "Gone in a Flash," Mort begs the boys to rescue Maurice, after King Julien traps him in the magic box (camera). The antics are quite Bond-ian, with a touch of Ren & Stimpy and Looney Tunes thrown in for flavor. If they can keep the writing solid, it'll be a series that works for kids and grownups alike. Hey, it's a hell of a lot better than the Latin water torture known as Dora the Explorer.
Since 24-minutes isn't much, Dreamworks tacks on four bonus features which have nothing to do with the Penguins and by all rights should be on Disc One. "Heart of a Lion" is a kiddie nature doc on a pride of lions. "The Bronx Zoo" is a quick tour of NYC's new Madagascar exhibit. "Alex's Dance Off" details his signature dance moves, for little ones who aspire to audition for Randy Jackson's America's Best Dance Crew. "Mad Activities" house DVD ROM content like a demo for Activision's Madagascar video game, printables, and web links. As usual, Mac users are SOL, since this content is Windows accessible only.
After impressing audiences and critics alike with Kung Fu Panda, Dreamworks keeps their batting average high with this second installment in the Madagascar franchise. The shame is this is the company's final 2-D feature…for now. With Disney and John Lasseter putting an emphasis back on traditional animation techniques, it'll be interesting to see how long before Katzenberg follows suit. Don't hesitate to add Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa to your family library. Parents may saturate at two or three viewings, but the kids will easily get to a dozen and keep on dancin'.
Not freakin' guilty. Ricco, Kowalski, Private—let's roll!
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