"Madagascar," the DreamWorks CGI cartoon from 2005, breaks no new ground in animation, characters, or storytelling, but it is cute, and it's one of the Wife-O-Meter's favorite animated features. So, I've watched it maybe half a dozen times, and it manages to bear up under repeat viewing. Maybe it's the music; maybe it's the color; maybe it's the new Blu-ray graphics. It is fun.
If "Madagascar" seems overly familiar by now, note that Disney made a similar picture, "The Wild," just a year later. Maybe the making of the two pictures was a monumental coincidence; maybe Disney saw how well received "Madagascar" was and decided to follow suit. I dunno. Lots of "maybes" here. But imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I suppose.
"Madagascar" features excellent (if not really innovative) CGI work, an appealing group of central characters, and some agreeable voice talents. By the time it's all over, you get a pretty sweet message thrown in as well, so it works out to a pleasant experience.
The story begins in New York's Central Park Zoo, where we meet the movie's four main characters. First, there's Alex, a lion voiced by Ben Stiller, an actor who seems to be in about 800 films a year these days. Alex is an extroverted fellow who loves being the center of attention and the zoo's star attraction. Marty, a zebra voiced by Chris Rock, is Alex's best friend. Marty is a hip, wisecracking zebra, the equivalent of Donkey in "Shrek." The two pals have been together for so long, neither of them realizes that in real life, the one would be food for the other. Next, there's Melman, a hypochondriac giraffe voiced by David Schwimmer, and Gloria, a motherly hippo voiced by Jada Pinkett Smith.
Despite the pampered lives they lead, a few of the animals are discontent, bored; mainly, it's Marty and a group of penguins (their leader voiced by one of the film's co-directors, Tom McGrath) who resent having to sit and pose for audiences every day. They want to go back to nature. From this point on, by the way, it is the penguins who steal the show ("Just smile and wave, boys, smile and wave"). Remember that it was around this time that penguins were so popular in the cinema, with this movie, "March of the Penguins," and "Happy Feet" leading the charge. Bearing this in mind, the penguins plan an escape to Antarctica. The filmmakers mean them to be little gangster types, Edgar G. Robinsons and Jimmy Cagneys, so a prison break is in keeping with their little tough-guy personas.
Marty tries to persuade his friends to escape with him and follow after the penguins, but the others ignore him, prompting Marty to go off on his own. When Marty's friends discover he's gone missing, they go after him to bring him back. Zoo officials go after all of them and bring all them back, but it's too late. After this incident, the zoo officials figure them for disruptive forces and decide to ship them off to a wildlife habitat. The crate up Alex, Marty, Melman, Gloria, the penguins, and a few monkeys, and put them on a boat for Kenya.
But wouldn't you know it. The penguins escape again and hijack the ship, knocking the crates overboard, where our four heroes wind up on the island of Madagascar, surrounded by its main inhabitants, lemurs, lead by their king, Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen), and his right-hand man, Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer).
OK, that's the setup for the movie, and obviously it's a rather lengthy and convoluted way of getting the main characters into the wild. The rest of the story, the bulk of it, involves the characters' misadventures in their wholly unknown surroundings: a group of tame, spoiled zoo animals in a savage, untamed land.
A few of the gags in the movie will go over the heads of children. For instance, there's a brief shot of Spaulding the basketball, a reference to Wilson the volleyball in "Cast Away." Then there's an equally brief bit that will go over the heads of most adults with a book called "To Serve Lemur" and a character shouting "It's a cookbook!" (Think of early "Twilight Zone" for this one.) Nevertheless, the inside jokes are funny, even if only the filmmakers and a precious few viewers may get them.
More important to the movie's success are the music, the graphics, and the friendships. The music is a combination of the familiar ("Born Free," "Candy Man," "Stayin' Alive," "Chariots of Fire," "What a Wonderful World." and more) and the original ("I Like to Move it, Move It" and a background score by Hans Zimmer). The CGI artists stylize the graphics, so don't expect photorealistic animals; nevertheless, it is attractive in its amusingly cartoonish way. And the friendship among the four principal players is sweetly touching.
Moreover, we can't forget the penguins.
Things get dicey when Alex really does start going "wild" himself, and then there are the Foosa, enemies of the lemurs who come periodically to eat them (shades of "The Time Machine"), which could potentially be upsetting for the movie's youngest viewers. But we have to remember that every good feature-length cartoon has had its scary moments from the very beginning of the genre with "Snow White" and its evil Queen.
While "Madagascar" may not be another "Toy Story," it is an engaging little diversion that maintains its charm with repeat viewing, and its new Blu-ray trappings help enormously to keep our attention.
It's hard to fault the video quality. DreamWorks engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC video codec to reproduce the 1.85:1 ratio picture with excellent results. The colors are beautiful--deep, rich, and luxuriant--but never eye-popping or aggressive. Sometimes, the image becomes a touch dark, but most of the time it remains bright and handsome. When the animals reach Madagascar and its tropical rain forests, the picture really opens up and shines with gorgeous detail and definition.
The box art says the movie comes only with regular Dolby Digital 5.1, but the disc actually contains a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack. Its strength is in its midrange smoothness and clarity, with just the occasional surround effect to remind us that it is, indeed, in five-point-one channels. Most of the time, the audio is merely adequate, with a fine but not exceptional frequency range and dynamic response.
As always with a DreamWorks release, we get a ton of extras on the disc, some of them in high def. That most of them are awfully familiar is a curse of the system, I guess. There don't seem to be too many ideas left for documentaries and featurettes and the like that we haven't seen before. So, things here start off with a familiar audio commentary, this one with directors Tom McGrath and Eric Darnell. Next up, there is a Blu-ray exclusive, "Mad Trivia Pop-Up," little boxes that display additional information from time to time. Then, there are the Penguins in a twelve-minute CGI short, "A Christmas Caper," followed by about a minute and a half of "Mad Mishaps." After those are "Penguin Chat," wherein the Penguins give us about eight minutes of commentary on their scenes, and "Meet the Wild Cast," seven minutes on the voice talents in the film. Moving on, there's "The Tech of Madagascar," five minutes on the CGI work; "Enchanted Island," eight minutes on the real island of Madagascar and how it fit into the movie; and "Behind the Crates," the longest item among the extras, about twenty-three minutes of behind-the-scenes making-of material.
Things conclude with a segment for kids called "Learn to Draw," where kids can learn to sketch the animals in the picture; a music video, "I Like to Move It, Move It"; a Video Jukebox of songs from this and other DreamWorks animated features; twenty scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. Or, if you're a penguin, the herring impaired.
"Madagascar" doesn't have the big laughs of a "Shrek" or a "Monsters, Inc.," nor does it have the heart of a "Toy Story" or "Ratatouille" (or a "Monsters, Inc.," for that matter, which combines laughs and tenderness in equal measures). Yet "Madagascar" does have its heart in the right place, and it does achieve a few small smiles. It's a pleasant picture, with excellent voice characterizations and charming graphics. I'm glad to have it around to watch again.