Be careful what you dream about. That might be the lesson intended by the latest DreamWorks cartoon, “Madagascar,” though the movie is so desperate to be liked that it’s hard to guess exactly what it means to say.
The opening sequence, accompanied by the Oscar-winning title tune from 1966’s “Born Free,” is set in an idealized Africa where zebras can fly. Or at least that appears to be the case until one zebra, Marty (voice by Chris Rock), is rudely awakened from his dream and remembers that he’s really caged in the “continent” of Manhattan, in Central Park Zoo.
And the musical references keep on coming. There’s a Travolta strut down the street to the tune of “Stayin’ Alive,” a “New York, New York” duet, a beach episode set to the score for “Chariots of Fire,” not to mention theme music from television wildlife shows. Later, the surprise ending of “Planet of the Apes” is recreated, and there’s a twisted reference to a famous “Twilight Zone” episode, “To Serve Man.”
As in last year’s more disposable DreamWorks babysitter, “Shark Tale,” the in-jokes appear to be spread around to keep adults awake, teenagers alert and children guessing. It’s clearly a formula that works commercially (“Shark Tale” was remarkably successful at the box office), but it’s become awfully familiar.
It also fails to succeed in what appears to be its central purpose: distracting the audience from realizing that there’s very little story holding the movie together. It’s left to the celebrity voices and the frequently stunning computer animation to keep “Madagascar” from going under.
The ubiquitous Ben Stiller plays a lion named Alex who lives to regret listening to his restless pal Marty; he ends up accompanying him on a boat trip that lands them on the island of Madagascar. Also along for part of the ride are a gang of snarky penguins — who stop briefly at Antarctica for frozen sushi before heading for the tropics — plus a hypochondriac giraffe named Melman (David Schwimmer) and a less clearly defined hippo named Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith).
Stiller earns most of his laughs by playing Alex as the kind of impatient, spoiled city kid who expects a welcoming committee when he arrives on the island. Alex is obsessed with the fat juicy steaks he used to devour back at the zoo, and for awhile it’s fun to see him trying to discover a fresh supply of meat on the island. (He keeps noshing on Marty’s posterior.)
The other actors have a spottier time of finding that kind of angle to attack their characters, though Rock has his moments transforming Marty into a surfer, and Schwimmer neatly registers comic claustrophobia when Melman finds his long neck and sturdy legs packed into a shipping box.
The movie seems to have been conceived as a sendup of Disney’s “The Lion King,” just as DreamWorks’ “Shrek” was written to poke fun at Disney’s older sacred cows. It’s amiable enough, but eventually it runs out of gas, just like the boat that transports Marty and Alex and only appears to make their dreams come true.