Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Euro Trip

No matter how many many new animation studios pop up, and no matter how many 3D animated films are released each year, there are still only two studios that REALLY matter: Pixar and Dreamworks. Of the two, Pixar has had the most success and the higher quality of films, from their breakthrough Toy Story to an almost-yearly excellent releases like The Incredibles, Up and Wall-E. Dreamworks has had fewer successes. but successes they HAVE been. While Pixar probably rules the quality side, Dreamworks generally works on quantity, and with hits such as the Shrek series, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon popping up regularly, Dreamworks has made a name for itself as a conveyor of consistent - if second-tier - animation. That has been enough for audiences, families who keep turning out to see these motion pictures. This summer, Pixar and Dreamworks meet yet again with conflicting June releases. But while we will be waiting until the end of the month to take in Pixar's Brave, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted made its way to screens this past weekend. After a successful debut (beating the highly-touted Prometheus at the box office), it's focusing on cashing in before Brave can inevitably ruin the party.

"Okay, yes, Meet the Fockers was a bad movie! Can you ever forgive me?"
Not that there's much reason to compare Madagascar to Brave in any capacity other than the fact that they're both children's animated films. While Brave looks like a clever, lore-filled tale with a strong message and unique characters, Madagascar is just silly, full of slapstick and wisecracks. continuing the story from its predecessors, Madagascar 3 sees Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippopotamus (Jada Pinkett Smith) trying to escape their temporary African residence to return home to the Central Park Zoo in New York City. As they will need the help of the Penguins (who have absconded with the airship to Monte Carlo), the four find themselves trekking across Europe, joining the circus, and attempting to elude the pursuit of Monacan Animal Control Captain Chantel Dubois (Frances McDormand), who is looking to add the head of a certain lion to her wall of trophies.

Huh, apparently zebras do just fine without opposible thumbs.
It's the circus angle that actually makes this film as enjoyable as it is. Sure, you might like the main cast of Stiller and crew, but they really don't do anything that different from other films. Even the Penguins, who are the main reason to watch ANY Madagascar offerings, aren't major factors in the movie as a whole. Instead it's the circus and the theme and characters that go along with it that provide the greatest source of entertainment the film can muster, and a great change of pace from the city/wild dynamic that had been the basis of the first two films. The vocal talent brought in to play the new characters were also amazing, with Bryan Cranston and Jessica Chastain (Seriously, how long is she going to be able to keep this pace?) performing wonderfully as a circus tiger and jaguar, respectively, and even Martin Short provides a good amount of levity as Stefano, a sea lion. Their work, plus the story of Alex and crew reinvigorating a failing circus, really raises the film above the dime store plot it would have enjoyed otherwise. While the addition of McDormand as an evil Animal Control specialist is admirable, it doesn't quite work as much more than a mix of Louis Tully from Ghostbusters and a Great White Hunter. And no, that's not really a compliment.While the movie does its best to make her a dire threat, I couldn't help but simply be annoyed by her presence, as she lacked anything other than cartoon villainy.

The Penguins: were you REALLY thinking of anything else when you bought your ticket?
Still, the film does at least bring the funny on a regular basis. Despite it being odd to see THREE directors in charge of making any title, even an animated movie, there don't appear to be any jumbled messages or misguided side-stories resulting from such a combination that would screw with the pace of the movie. I do wonder why Conrad Vernon (Shrek 2, Monsters Vs. Aliens) was asked to join the proven duo of Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, who had paired on the two previous Madagascar films, but in the end it's not important. While conflict is minimal and usually involves a single conversation to set things right, it's easy to criticize this when the subject I'm talking about is a movie geared towards children. It's not supposed to be complicated, and it never has to be, for that reason alone.

"It's just a model!"
In all, Madagascar 3 was a decent time spent at the theaters. Like last year's Kung Fu Panda 2, it's a fun diversion without much in the way of deep plot or complicated storytelling. Still, it's actually funnier than both of Dreamworks' titles from last year (the other being Puss in Boots), especially for the children who make up the vast majority of the audience. Even with the addition of Chris Rock's quickly-annoying "Afro Circus" song, this is still a fine movie for the kids, and one even adults can get into once the circus story hits. Still, you might want to save your money for Brave, which promises to be the better of the two, and comes out in just a couple of weeks. But if you have money to burn and need to beat the heat, you can certainly do a lot worse than this fun ride. It's no How to Train Your Dragon, but it's firmly on the right side of Dreamworks' quality average, and that's certainly not a bad thing.

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