(by Dustin Putman
It's hard to believe it's been seven years since the release of the uninspired, even dour "Madagascar," and even more hard to believe that such an inconsequential computer-animated feature could spawn two sequels. One cannot blame distributor Dreamworks for capitalizing on the big box-office takes they've made off this franchise. If 2008's "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" was a step above its precursor, and both were forgettable enough to be rendered fugue memories a week after seeing them, then "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" does one better by actually being pretty good. The writing is more sophisticated, less dependent on pop-cultural references than actual wry humor, the numerous settings are more varied, and the villain of the piece is one of the most vivid in some time. Ultimately, it's still nothing more than a willowy good time, but it sends the characters and their ongoing story out on a high note. Now let's stop while the series is ahead; by the end, there's nowhere else for them to go. Article continues below
Ever since lion Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller), zebra Marty (Chris Rock), giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) and hippopotamus Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) rode a barge out of Manhattan and ended up on the title island, they've been struggling to find a way back to their old lives at the Central Park Zoo. Although they have now been reunited with their families on the African mainland, they can't help but still feel like their calling is elsewhere. So, off they go, first arriving along the French Riviera as they try to commit a casino heist not of money, but of the penguins (dressed incognito as powder-faced royalty) whose plane just might be their ticket home. Before they can get away, the gang is accosted through Monte Carlo by Chantel Dubois (Frances McDormand), an animal control captain who will stop at nothing to capture these wild beasts. Desperate to flee, Alex and friends convince a train of traveling circus animals to pick them up under the false story that they, too, are big-top performers. First stop is Rome, then London, then, if all goes well, New York. As Alex starts to fall for fetching jaguar Gia (Jessica Chastain), his guilty conscience over lying to her begins to get the best of him.
My, how things have changed between "Madagascar" and "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted." The former film played like a poor-man's version of 2006's "The Wild," which shared the very same premise, and was topped off by a despairing cheap joke at the end that left its characters stranded with no hope for rescue. "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" amended this off-putting conclusion, but not enough to turn around a creaky enterprise, reminding most of all like a derivative rehash of 1994's "The Lion King." In gathering together Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria once more, returning directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, joined this time by Conrad Vernon (2009's "Monsters vs. Aliens"), have paid greater attention to the quality of what's going up on the screen. The animation is better than it's been, a parade of vibrant colors and inventive detailing that even the 3D in its theatrical exhibition can't quite shroud in murkiness. The interplay between all the animals - in addition to the core four and the penguins, there also are lemurs led by the daffy, singing King Julien XIII (Sacha Baron Cohen), a sea lion named Stefano (Martin Short), gruff Siberian tiger Vitaly (Bryan Cranston), and the cutest, fluffiest rodent since Gizmo - runs smoothly and amusingly, helped by a screenplay by Eric Darnell and Noah Baumbach (2010's "Greenberg") that keeps revitalizing itself with new sights and ideas every time it starts to go stale.
Best of all, though, is Chantel Dubois, a French-accented hybrid of Cruella DeVil and The Peculiar Purple Pie Man. As terrifically voiced by Frances McDormand (2012's "Moonrise Kingdom"), she's unstoppable in her single-minded pursuit of locking up Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria. In a stunning chase sequence that stands as the most thrilling action set-piece since the Burj Khalifa scene in 2011's "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol," Captain Dubois races after the animals through the street and over the rooftops of Monte Carlo's skyline. It's pretty spectacular. Later, she turns to sniffing the ground and drinking puddles of mud water to track them down. The film's middle section is on more familiar turf since all but the smallest of viewers will be able to guess where things are headed, but the finale brings things back around for a performance scored to Katy Perry's "Firework" that should lead to some major toe-tappage.
Home is not necessarily a place, but where the heart is, and that's a wise - if not new - notion which "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" boils down to. In getting what they thought they wanted, only to discover they wouldn't trade the lives they've been leading these past few months, the protagonists share in a long-overdue epiphany. With this, the tale of Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Melman the Giraffe, and Gloria the Hippo arrives at just the right ending. Tacking more onto it for a fourth installment would only come off as forced and synthetic. Leaving the story be right where it is, however, would be the series' last - and best - flourish.