Judge Kent Dixon can't wait for Madagascar 3 in Super 3D!
Our review of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa / The Penguins Of Madagascar, published February 6th, 2009, is also available.
The crate escape.
After three years, fans of the original DreamWorks animated film were treated to a sequel with Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. The penguins, lemurs, and all the original highlights are back from the first film, so this should be an equal sequel, right?
Facts of the Case
The intrepid New York giants Alex (Ben Stiller), Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith), Melman (David Schwimmer), and Marty (Chris Rock) are back and ready to return home from their experience in "the wild." With an over-the-top lemur send off and the penguins at the controls of King Julian's (Sacha Baron Cohen) plane, they set out to leave the island and return home. Not a bad start to a promising sequel. One problem. Ever seen The Lion King?
When Madagascar was released in theaters in 2005, it was a breath of fresh air and another feather in the cap for the folks at DreamWorks. The animation was impressive and the sound design matched the level of quality note for note. The voice acting ensemble was a stroke of genius and the plot was both unique and entertaining throughout the entire film. The film set the bar very high, not only for future DreamWorks animated projects, but also for any potential sequels. That said, the groundwork had been masterfully laid and all a sequel should have required was to build on that same strong foundation with a new and unique story.
As original and refreshing as the first film was, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa delivers more déjà vu than anything else. When I first saw the film in theaters, I distinctly remember leaning over to my wife and saying "hmmm…doesn't this remind you a lot of The Lion King?" Given the freshness and originality of the first film, it's disappointing to find that after three years, fans of the original were met with the same quality and talent, but through the filter of a paper-thin plot and situations that felt cobbled together from various existing sources. With Alex's Lion King-esque story forming the core of the plot, some viewers may find themselves losing interest once Alex, Marty, Gloria, and Marty meet Alex's parents. I always wonder if a relatively weak script like this is a result of too many writers, or too few. Whatever the cause, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa suffers as a result.
Why did the characters leave Madagascar, only to make it as far as mainland Africa? Almost any story concept would have been more entertaining. Why didn't they set out in the wrong direction and wind up in Europe somewhere? Landing them in Africa with the main storyline focusing on Alex regaining his rightful place as the…ahem…lion king, wasn't a good choice. As a result, all the talent, skill and likely significant production costs were wasted on a been-there, done-that plot. I liked many parts of the film, but found myself disappointed that it didn't deliver more overall and reach the same level as the original. I liken it a bit to Ghostbusters 2…we've seen these characters in similar situations before, and there's really not enough new content to hold the audience's interest for the whole film.
With that out of the way, one might have the impression that I didn't like this film at all and probably didn't prefer the original either. On the contrary, Madagascar ranks high on my list of top animated films from recent years and I was the first to cheer when the sequel announcement was made. The sequel had the potential to be, if not an equal to the original, then at least a worthy successor. For all intents and purposes, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa should have been a great film, but putting the blame almost exclusively on the story, it wound up being slightly better than average animated fare.
While the plot may be thin, there is still much to love. On the bright side, the voice cast is excellent and includes many of the actors from the original film, along with some surprising additions like Alec Baldwin and Will.I.Am from the band The Blackeyed Peas. The penguins are back and in fine form, and Nana, the loveable but cranky old lady from the first film, gets an expanded role as the leader of a motley band of tourists. There are many strong comedic moments throughout the film that will bear repeat viewing and make many viewers laugh out loud. Fans of pop culture will also notice nods to sources like The Twilight Zone, West Side Story, and Jurassic Park, so there's more here than initially meets the eye. By the way, yes, you did hear Boston's "More Than a Feeling" in there somewhere.
As a quick aside, I have always been a fan of films that establish their personality from the moment the studio logos appear at the beginning of the film. Some examples include the snow falling on the Fox logo during the opening of Edward Scissorhands and the camera zoom into the sunset behind the Fox Searchlight logo at the beginning of Sunshine. I won't spoil it, but watch for the penguin sneak attack on the DreamWorks boy in the moon when the film opens.
Similar to the original film, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is stunning on Blu-ray. Using the jungle sequence early in the film for reference, colors are vibrant and true to life and solid blacks emphasize detail and help to create depth. From the faux leather finish on the airplane seats to the individual hairs on the many animals, fine detail is amazing, and likely even more so in this 1080p presentation. I'm also continually amazed by motion blur and depth of focus in animated films, tricking the eye and creating an even more photo-realistic image. The Dolby TrueHD sound mix really steps up to the plate as well, rounding out the viewing experience nicely by making full use of your 5.1 system in a near-perfect blend of vocals, music and effects.
I keep hoping studios will eventually come to realize that quality is far more valuable to film fans than quantity when it comes to extra features on DVD releases. There's a lot included here, but not that much of real value. The broad assortment of extra features from the SD release, which you can read about in more detail in Chief Justice Michael Stailey's review, is included on the Blu-ray version as well. The following extras are exclusive to Blu-ray: "The Animator's Corner," which essentially takes up the bottom right quadrant of the screen with a video window that shows a combination of video shot during the commentary track, as well as story boards and animators at work in their natural habitats; and a "Pop Up Video"-style trivia track that delivers random tidbits throughout the film. The BD-Live feature was a bit buggy when I tried to access it, but it did let me watch a short SD documentary about a pride of lions, which is also available on the SD release. The one extra feature that did pique my interest was the two episodes of the upcoming Nickelodeon animated series The Penguins of Madagascar. The animation quality is noticeably inferior, but the character chemistry is just as magic as it was in the two features films, so hard core fans should be pleased.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
More time. I really feel this film would have benefitted from more time, certainly where the script was concerned. Given the originality of the first film, one would think the creative team could definitely have come up with a better plot for the sequel. Guys, if you even consider a return for Madagascar 3 in Super 3D, or a sequel of any kind, three words: Take. Your. Time.
While not living up to the appeal of its predecessor, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is still a better-than-average animated film. If you loved the original, you're likely to find something to love in this film, and on Blu-ray the experience is just that much sweeter. Unless you can find the Blu-ray version for the same or better price than the SD release, and given the extra features are essentially the same for both releases, you may find that opting for the hi-def version may be too hard to justify.
Sometimes you've just got to "move it, move it!"
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