The opening strains of the familiar Born Free lead to a joyous sequence of a zebra running through Africa, unencumbered by any restraints, at one with nature. Ah, but it's a dream, and it turns out that Marty the zebra (voice of Chris Rock) in reality makes his home at the Central Park Zoo, with the Essex House looming in the background.
He's certainly not unhappy there. He and his pals -- Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer), and Gloria the hippopotamus (Jada Pinkett Smith) -- are pampered and well-fed by the staff, and they're all adored by the people who come to visit. In fact, of the three, only Marty is even the slightest bit itchy for something else, or, as he puts it, a "return to the wild," even though he was born right there at the zoo. It seems he's having a mid-life crisis, at the age of 10.
That's the kind of sophisticated humor that fills this newest computer-animated creation from the DreamWorks studio, the folks who gave us the Shrek movies. Like those films, this one's makers have a blast making fun of themselves and their industry. In some wonderful stabs at movie marketing, the zoo is filled with Alex the Lion products for sale -- from snow globes to umbrellas. Of course, this might make young viewers want these items, but adults will still get a kick out of the humor. And in the story's latter parts, when a plot shift moves the action from New York to the title island, there are endless references to other films that won't even register in kids' minds, but will cause savvy viewers to laugh out loud.
There are so many of them, giving away a couple, just to hint at the flavor of the writing, shouldn't upset anyone. But really, what kid will get the Cast Away connection when Alex is on the beach with a basketball named Spaulding? And who, under the age of 10 (or 20, or 30) will giggle upon seeing a facsimile of a wrecked Statue of Liberty and hearing the line, "You maniacs, darn you all to heck?"
Of course, the original Charlton Heston line was a little stronger, but this is, after all, a family film. Then again, it seems that one piece of dialogue slipped neatly right through the censor cracks. In a scene where Alex is chasing Marty on the beach, Marty, sensing that Alex isn't fooling around, yells out, "Sugar, honey, ice, tea!" Now, check out the acronym that phrase makes.
The first half of Madagascar is mostly character development, such as finding out that Melman the giraffe is a hypochondriac who's all nervous about a "new brown spot." That part of the story is told in a wild series of set pieces, including what happens when animals are on the loose in New York City. It even dips into a bit of Fantasia-like surrealism when tranquilizer darts are brought into play. The second half goes more for the slapstick side of things. Upon arrival in Madagascar (an island in the Indian Ocean, off the east coast of Africa), the animal quartet first has a variety of different reactions: Marty does a dance for joy, Alex freaks out, Melman sticks his long neck into the ground, Gloria stays calm. Then they must deal with the local inhabitants: lemurs -- a whole bunch of goofy lemurs -- presided over by King Julian (Sacha Baron Cohen aka Ali G), who gives the most over-the-top, and funniest, performance in the film.
And it's here that the film really starts over, introducing a story of culture clash, showing how even the best of friendships can slip into a shaky status when things begin to go wrong, and turning the mood almost grim at one point, when a side story shows a few small animals being eaten by predators.
The sight gags are a constant, with irregular appearances by a quartet of troublemaking penguins who also made their way out of the zoo, and in the physical appearance of Alex, whose neat mane becomes a frizzy tangle. But the writing, on a constantly high level through most of this, cuts a few too many corners when hunger -- remember, here's no one there to feed them -- turns into temporary delirium for one of the characters, whose change in attitude and behavior is too fast and drastic.
The kids watching won't care about that. But they might be perplexed by the John Sayles-like non-ending, in which everything is settled ... or is it? Still, everyone who stays to the end -- the bitter end of the credits -- will get a good laugh out of the very last frame.