Some charming performances and saucy humor cannot save this movie from its surprising insensitivity. Its core question is what happens to best friends in captivity, who, once returned to the wild, realize they are predator and prey.
The makers of this film might have had an idea that they were giving the audience an example of how even those with very different natures and cultures can find a way to live together, but this is not about conflict between the star-bellied sneetches and the plain bellied sneetches or even the ranchers and the farmers. This is about a lion whose best friend the zebra looks increasingly delicious as the zoo animals have to learn why it’s called “the wild.” The film does not gloss over or cute-ify that conflict the way The Lion King did with its salute to “The Circle of Life.” That film somehow managed to omit the details about the benefits of being at the top of the food chain, even if you’re a bug-eating lion. In this one, the lion looks at the zebra and is horrified to discover that his best friend is starting to look….delicious.
As the story begins, Alex (voice of Ben Stiller) is perfectly happy as the star of the show at the Central Park Zoo. He’s a downtown sort of lion, who loves being pampered and having his nice juicy steaks brought to him on a platter. His best friend, Marty (voice of Chris Rock) dreams of being in the savanna. He gazes at the mosaic mural of the veldt and wonders what it would be like to run without any cages to stop him.
When Marty escapes from the zoo, Alex and their two other friends, a warm-hearted and sensible hippo named Gloria (voice of Jada Pinkett Smith) and a hypochondriacal and nervous giraffe named Melman (voice of David Schwimmer) go after him. After they are recaptured, the authorities decide to send them to an animal preserve in Africa. But things go wrong and they end up on the shores of Madagascar. How will they survive without humans to take care of them? What will they do without audiences to entertain?
Up to this point, the movie is pleasant, even witty, with the reliable combination of cute characters, potty humor, and slapstick to appeal to kids and knowing wisecracks and pop culture references (“Twilight Zone” to “Planet of the Apes” and “Castaway” plus a managed care joke) to appeal to teens and parents. But then things go badly when the last part of the movie turns into an existential crisis for Alex, who realizes for the first time what being a carnivore really means. He doesn’t just want to have them to dinner — he wants to have them as dinner.
This fails its intended audience on the merits of the story and as a matter of appropriateness of content. Wile E. Coyote may chase after the Road Runner and Elmer Fudd may chase after Bugs Bunny, but in both cases the fun of the cartoons is seeing the prey outsmart the predator. The antagonists are not friends; there is no sense of betrayal.
The shift in tone is uneasy and sour, and the conclusion is too unsatisfying. Then the movie doesn’t end. It just stops, which is even more unstatisfying.
And there just isn’t enough in the rest of the film to make up for that mistake. The design is very good but animation looks a bit two-dimensional. We’ve seen computer wizards can make fur and water look even more real than reality before, so the technological marvels are all taken for granted.
The performances are nothing special, either. As is usual in animated films, the stand-up comics do better than actors in providing voices as vivid and colorful as their cartoon avatars. Rock, along with Cedric the Entertainer and Sasha Baron Cohen (Ali G) as lemurs outshine Stiller, Smith, and Schwimmer. But the show is stolen by the penguins, who are by far the funniest and most engaging and exciting characters on screen. If the movie had been about them, it could have been terrific.
Parents should know that a major element of the plot concerns whether Alex will eat his friends, which may be disturbing to some children. In addition to this and other references to predators, there is cartoon-style violence, including a kick in the crotch and guns that shoot tranquilizer darts. The inconclusive ending may also be unsettling. The characters use some crude schoolyard language and there is some potty humor. Parents may also want to reassure young children that telling your wishes is not “bad luck.”
Families who see this movie should find Madagascar on a map and learn more about the animals, including lemurs and foosa. They may want to visit the Central Park Zoo and the famous San Diego Zoo, described admiringly by the characters in the film. Families should talk about why Alex liked the zoo but Marty wanted something different. What does it mean to say that “everyone has a day when they think the grass is greener someplace else?” What should Alex and the others have done when they found out Marty left the zoo? Why did Marty and Alex find it hard to forgive one another? What did they learn from their time in the jungle? How did Alex learn to do something that was contrary to his nature as a lion?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Racing Stripes, about a zebra who wants to race horses, and Disney’s animated The Jungle Book and the live action The Jungle Book made 25 years earlier. They will also appreciate Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson and the classic Born Free (whose theme song can be heard at the beginning of this film), based on the real-life story of a tame lion who had to be taught to live in the wild. The film is a bit dated now in its portrayal of colonialism, but it is still a moving story. Families with older children should read Last Chance to See, the hilarious and touching book by Douglas Adams (of the “Hitchhiker’s Guide” series) about his real-life travels to see endangered species, including a Madagascar lemur called the Aye-Aye.