Yes, computer animators, it’s really cool how you make each individual hair in a lion’s mane stand out. And the way you fill the screen with striped zebras is a wonder to behold. But is it too much to ask for these feature cartoons to have a story that isn’t about the hero’s quest to prove himself? Could we put Joseph Campbell back on the shelf and find a new dramatic archetype?
Seriously, “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” may not be the worst of the animated features that have been forced down our collective gullet since the genre’s rebirth with “The Little Mermaid” almost 20 years ago, but it feels like a collection of tropes and gags so familiar that even 4-year-olds could map out where they’ve seen all this before.
The first movie dealt with a quartet of zoo animals who break out of New York’s Central Park Zoo and then, through a series of misadventures, wind up fending for themselves in the wilds of Madagascar. This time around, we’re treated to a little pre-history, in which we learn that lion Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller) was actually poached off an animal reserve in Africa, much to the sorrow of his parents Zuba (the late Bernie Mac) and Mom (Sherri Shepherd).
After we flashback through that childhood incident (as well as the events of the first “Madagascar”), we see Alex, zebra Marty (Chris Rock), hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) and giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) aboard a rickety plane that their lemur and penguin pals plan to fly back to New York. Things don’t go quite so smoothly, however, and a semi-harrowing crash delivers them back to Africa and the reserve where Alex was born.
The conniving Makunga (Alec Baldwin) uses Alex’s arrival as a way to usurp Zuba’s position as alpha lion, while the other three animals deal with their own issues — Marty meets a peer group of zebras, although he worries about losing his individuality; Gloria gets to entertain a gentleman caller who seems interested only in her avoirdupois; and Melman gets to put his years of hypochondria to good use as a witch doctor, although he’s still too terrified to profess his love of Gloria.
“Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” is bright and colorful to look at, but the movie gets weighed down by an excessive amount of talk, talk, talk, little of which is particularly funny. A big chunk of the plot revolves around Alex lacking the jungle skills of a lion, but wasn’t the first movie about him rediscovering his killer instincts when returned to the wild? That entire notion is never once mentioned here, and it feels like lazy writing.
Most of the voice performances are merely adequate, although Baldwin has a field day playing what might be classified as Scar from “The Lion King” as filtered through Baldwin’s hilariously ruthless “30 Rock” character. (The animators give Makunga very Baldwin-like facial expressions, and he winds up being the movie’s most interesting character.) And while a little David Schwimmer usually goes a long way, his voice is exactly the sound you imagine a hypochondriacal giraffe making.
Easily entertained children will probably be amused enough by “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” but their parents may find themselves growing restless at this overly fussy, shticky movie and will not doubt look forward to an Escape 2 the Lobby once the credits start rolling.