"Who says a penguin can't fly?"
Clearly, your enjoyment of the 2008 DreamWorks animated feature "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" will depend upon how much you enjoyed its predecessor, 2005's "Madagascar." The Wife-O-Meter and I liked the previous film, so it's no surprise we appreciated this new installment as well. It's not quite as funny or endearing as the original, but it's at least as attractive to look at, maybe more so in high-definition Blu-ray, which is to say it looks outstanding.
"Escape 2 Africa" takes up where the first movie left off, with the same zany cast of characters, a few additional ones, and an all-new villain. The title seems a little odd, though. I thought the gang was pretty content living in their adopted home of Madagascar, a virtual paradise, so I'm not sure why they wanted to "escape." In any case, "Escape 2 Africa" begins with a brief back story to remind viewers of who's who and how they got there.
If you remember, four animals from New York City's Central Park Zoo en route to a wildlife habitat found themselves washed ashore in Madagascar after a gang of penguins highjacked their boat. The animals were all good friends: Alex (Ben Stiller), the star lion at the zoo; the zebra Marty (Chris Rock), Alex's best friend; Melman (David Schwimmer), a hypochondriac giraffe; and Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith), a sweetheart of a hippo. Once they arrived in Madagascar, they met the island's self-engrossed lemur king, Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen, always funny); his right-hand man (er, lemur), Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer); and a cute little fellow named Mort (Andy Richter). Stealing the show back then were the penguins, led by the Skipper (voiced by the film's director, Tom McGrath), and things haven't changed any.
The film tells us in flashback that Alex came to the zoo originally from Africa, where poachers tried to capture him, he escaped in a crate, and he floated all the way to America, where the Central Park Zoo took him in.
OK, so now here's where we are: The penguins, after an aborted plan to return to Antarctica, renovate a downed airplane and volunteer to return everybody, including Julien, Maurice, Mort, and the chimps, to New York. I'm still not sure why. Unfortunately, the penguins hadn't counted on the plane running out of gas, and they crash-land in a game preserve in Africa, where Alex reunites with his mom and dad, and the adventure begins. Prompting the movie's primary conflict is the dastardly Makunga (Alec Baldwin), a scheming lion who is vying with Alex's dad (Bernie Mac) for leadership of the pride.
All of the back story and preliminary exposition take up a considerable amount of time, and what with some lengthy closing credits thrown in, the movie's eighty-nine-minute running time hardly leaves room for the primary story to unfold.
During the course of events, we get the usual sly cultural references, one of them to a celebrated episode of "The Twilight Zone," and others to more-recent shows like "I, Robot," "Lost," and "Survivor." Mostly, though, the film expects us to sympathize with old friends and go along with their new escapades. Be aware, however, that the plot this time out is pretty flimsy. The story line is more of a succession of brief and tenuously related gags and episodes, with smaller bits filling in, sometimes implausibly, for a cohesive whole.
Despite the movie's humorous characters, constant movement, and picturesque settings, the tale never quite catches fire, maybe because it's a bit too disjointed. Luckily, the penguins save the day, as do a group of tourists that includes the little old lady from New York we met in the first picture, the music, and the wonderful artwork. Indeed, the CGI animation overshadows everything else. It's even more elaborate, more detailed, more colorful, and more beautiful than it was in the first picture. This movie is a joy to behold, with Hans Zimmer and Will.I.Am's music and songs playing a close second.
In addition, "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" relies more heavily than ever on friendship, love, and family relationships that the first movie did. Who can complain about that?
As in "Madagascar," the visuals in this new film are better than the script or the characters, and the Blu-ray video reproduction does the artwork proud. The DreamWorks' engineers use an MPEG-4/AVC codec to capture the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and imagery on a dual-layer BD50 disc. The result in standard definition looked terrific, and the high-def resolution adds even finer detail to the mix. Indeed, the sheer amount of detail is almost staggering. Pause the picture in almost any shot and study the composition. It's darn-near amazing. Colors are gorgeous, deep and rich and glowing, sometimes breathtakingly so; object delineation is precise; shadow detail is excellent; and black levels are deep. Yes, I know that CGI animation usually always shows better in high definition than live action, but even among CGI creations, this picture is tops.
The audio engineers provide a lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack, which complements the picture nicely. It supplies a goodly amount of rear-channel ambience as well as channel-specific surround sound for music, voices, and audio effects. Heck, there's even a helicopter that makes its presence known in the back speakers. What's more, the sonics afford even better dynamics than the regular Dolby Digital on the SD disc, a remarkably punchy impact, and an ultrasmooth, realistically balanced midrange.
DreamWorks make "Escape 2 Africa" available in three configurations: a single-disc DVD; a single-disc DVD with an attached second disc, "The Penguins of Madagascar," which contains two all-new, animated adventures--"Popcorn Panic" and "Gone in a Flash"--totaling about twenty-four minutes; and the single-disc Blu-ray reviewed here, which includes the "Penguins" episodes.
First up on the Blu-ray disc, we find two exclusives in high def: "The Animators' Corner," a picture-in-picture affair where the filmmakers comment on the action from within on-screen inserts; and a Trivia Track, which provides pop-up bits of text information as the film is running. Next, we get a filmmakers' commentary with directors and co-writers Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath and producers Mireille Soria and Mark Swift. They are sincere and helpful and amusing with their comments. After that, we have a series of brief featurettes, also in high def: "It's a Family Affair: The Cast of Escape 2 Africa" is a nine-minute promo on the voice cast. "The Making of Escape 2 Africa" is an eleven-minute behind-the-scenes segment. "Crash Landing" is about three-and-a-half minutes on the animation of the crash scene. "African Adventure" is seven minutes on the film crew visiting Africa to soak up some atmosphere. Then, there's "Jambo Jambo: Swahili Speak" and "The Bronx Zoo: Madagascar."
After those items, there is more of the Penguins in the two adventures listed above; a little video game, "Test Flight of Air Penguin"; followed by four "Mad" music videos: "She Loves Me," "Move It, Move It," "Big and Chunky," and "The Traveling Song" sing-along. Finally, there's "Alex's Dance-Off" and a DreamWorks Animation video jukebox that provides songs from other DW movies.
The extras finish up with twenty-three scene selections and bookmarks; a series of DreamWorks trailers at start-up and in the main menu; a BD-Live feature that includes "The Heart of a Lion"; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
No, I can't really say I liked "Escape 2 Africa" as much as I did "Madagascar." It's partly a matter of over familiarity with the characters--that lack of meeting them and getting to know them for the first time--and partly a matter of the plot stopping and starting too many times, as though it weren't quite sure just where it was going. Still, the movie has a big heart, and it's sure to please young and old alike with its distinctive characters, high spirits, and lively bounce. Moreover, the Blu-ray sound and picture provide an audiovisual treat. Can't beat that.
"As long as we're together, we'll be OK."