Kudos, too, of course, to the animators -- there's one sweeping vista of the African Serengeti here that took my breath away. Escape is so gorgeous, in fact, that it took me a while to realize that the heart and the soul of the first Madagascar, the aspect that made it so special, is missing here. As a pleasantly rowdy cartoon that diverts and amuses, one that will appeal to a wide audience without having to dumb itself down to do so, Escape is a splendid success. It's when held up to its predecessor that it feels a bit... lacking.
The returning writing and directing team of Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath have only themselves to blame: They set the bar high with the previous film, warping a deeply touching valentine to New York City and to urban civilization on the whole with their tale of zoo animals suddenly lost in nature. Showoff performing lion Alex (the voice of Ben Stiller) and funnyman zebra Marty (the voice of Chris Rock) could only be friends within the cultivated confines of city life, what with Alex being a carnivore and Marty being made of meat. Now, though, Alex and Marty are even more lost in nature -- and it's a far more idealized nature this time out, where, it seems, all the lions and all the zebras have no trouble getting along all the time. Their abortive flight from the island of Madagascar -- more on that in a moment -- gets them only as far as continental Africa, where the lions appear to have no trouble refraining from eating the local herbivores.
Adventures in readjusting -- again -- to yet another alien environment for the city-slicker critters ensue. I won't spoil any of that: It's sweet and clever. What rankles is who is cast as the villains: a band of human tourists from New York City (also lost), whose attempts to re-create civilization result in some very bad things. The humans are doing what Alex and Co. did in Madagascar, but they're the bad guys for it now.
But if you can turn your brain off -- as, obviously, I can't -- there's some wonderful stuff in Escape, too. Like a terrifying and simultaneously hilarious airplane sequence, as the penguins -- oh yes, they're back -- make King Julien's cargo-cult crashed-airplane temple just about airworthy again in order to fly the zoo gang home. And there's King Julien (the voice of Sacha Baron Cohen), a delightfully clueless yet impossibly arrogant little monster. Alec Baldwin's minor villain, the lion Makunga -- shades of The Lion King's Scar -- is a hoot. Good stuff. Funny stuff.
Look, it's fine. It's cute. The kids will love it. Their parents won't be bored. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is a perfectly nice time at the flicks. But the unexpected and affecting wisdom of the original Madagascar is still ticking in my head, three years later. As for its sequel, I've all but forgotten it already. (Rated PG)