on May 27, 2005 by Kim Williamson
Arriving timed to the tradition of bowing big animated titles in later May that has brought box-office grandeur to both Disney ("Finding Nemo") and DreamWorks (both "Shreks") but also less-than-stellar results ("Dinosaur," "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron"), "Madagascar" enters the scene pitted against weekend #2 of the final "Star Wars" and weekend #1 of the "Longest Yard" remake. Despite the audience potency of those titles, Memorial Day seems to be a good slot for it, with "Madagascar" being the perfect holiday outing for families looking for PG fare. The question is, does this story of four zoo animals provide the enjoyment to make this a "repeat" title?

"Madagscar" boasts a unique look that takes some accustoming; the characters--gentle king of the hill Alex the Lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), wanderlusting Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), street-savvy Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and worrywart Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer)--are drawn in a sharp-edged yet fibrous style that makes them look a bit like they're 3-D cutouts of foam rubber. Once one settles in to that look, the effect adds to the film's comic nature. Eschewing the Broadway-song stylings of the last decade of Disney efforts, the film boasts an eclectic soundtrack that melds the African themes of noted film composer Hans Zimmer, samplings of classic popular songs (think "Stayin' Alive" and "New York, New York") and several plays of what will likely be the movie's most memorable musical offering, Reel2Real's beat-crazed "I Like to Move It, Move It." Other pluses are the comic secondary characters: a swarm of lemurs, led by the danceaholic King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) and the more straightlaced king's minister Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer), met when the four Central Park Zoo animals through misadventure find themselves in the wilds of Madagascar; and a quartet of army-like zoo penguins who are themselves seeking their own wilds, in Antarctica.

The main narrative itself is a mostly sure-footed one: An escape by Marty, who dreams of life in the wild, or at least Connecticut, leads to the arrest of the zoo friends in Grand Central Station and deportation to an African preserve; a shipboard accident leaves the four beached on the Indian Ocean island that gives the film its name; there, as the herbivorous zebra, giraffe and hippo settle in for a happy life alongside the partying lemur natives, the carnivorous lion, who'd led a steak-fed life back in Central Park, finds himself dazed by meat-eating desires--with best friend Marty on the menu. That last carries more than a bit of unsettling psychology. But what's missing, oddly, is a moral or meaning to the whole enterprise. In "Finding Nemo," the subject was family; in "Shrek," the subject was self; in "Madagascar," the subject is...well, it's nothing at all. That, plus its short running time, mean that "Madagascar" is unlikely to achieve classic status. But a good time in the jungles below Maromokotro will be had by all. Voiced by Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer and Andy Richter. Directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath. Written by Mark Burton, Billy Frolick, Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath. Produced by Mireille Soria. A DreamWorks release. Animated. Rated PG for mild language, crude humor and some thematic elements. Running time: 86 min

Tags: computer animation, animals, Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter, Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath

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