A modest, fast, and relatively painless all-digital cartoon, the new DreamWorks money milker belongs to what is now a time- and profit-petrified tradition: the prepubescent kids’ movie polluted by (a) middle-school-level fart jokes and (b) pointless allusions to decades-old pop culture only adults will comprehend, if not appreciate. But Madagascar‘s bathroom cracks are minor, its soundtrack throwbacks (Saturday Night Fever, Born Free, Chariots of Fire) tired but innocuous. In fact, the film is so unassuming the promotional blitzkrieg that’s preceded it seems to have more authority—and it probably cost more. All of which registers on the upside; compared to the vulgar post-Pixar gastritis that plagued Antz, Shrek, Shrek 2, and Shark Tale, Madagascar is an antic little charmer, wasting no more or less time on repetitive pratfalls and unpoetic mushiness than any Disney film since 1948.
It doesn’t hurt that the first third is set in a sweetheart re-envisioning of the Central Park Zoo, where complacent beasts repose (superstar lion Ben Stiller, hypochondriac giraffe David Schwimmer, sassy hippo Jada Pinkett-Smith). Discontented zebra Chris Rock longs for “the wild,” however, and his daydreams are ignited by a quartet of P.O.W. penguins who are tunneling their way to freedom. The stars are vocally dull or, in the case of Rock, grating and unvaried, but the New Yawkisms—including a police horse with a Canarsie grunt and the inevitable sight of a runaway zebra going virtually unnoticed on Lexington Avenue—are hard to resist. Too soon, the animals are apprehended in Grand Central Terminal and shipped overseas, where they crash-land on a tropical beach and confront the tension between their indulged home life and their natural selves.
“Confront” may be a weighty word to use; Madagascar turns in its last act toward addressing the return of instinct and the odd predator-prey friendships that populate the film, but it’s hardly dramatic. At least the characters have an angular, freehand design to them, not the lumpy faux-waxworks style that dominated the Shreks. The film’s best idea is an island nation of hopping, hip-swiveling, billiard-ball-eyed lemurs, led by hyperactive king Sacha Baron Cohen, with a mercurial Middle Eastern accent and a delivery like a machine gun shooting Ping-Pong balls. Drafted and animated to resemble E-stoked clubbers bouncing to a remix of “I Like to Move It,” their rainbow-colored corneas huge and shining in giddy rapture, the lemurs are enough of a comic wonder to render the other characters obsolete. A few other toss-off gags worked—my favorite was a glimpse of the lemurs’ court stenographer, a fat chameleon who strikes from the record with his tongue—and Madagascar‘s relaxed density is a relief given the DreamWorks tendency to overbear, overblast, and overcaricaturize. Even as the references fall flat and the story plods, it’s obvious the animation crew for the supporting creatures—including an unlucky duckling and a Mogwai bush baby—had the most fun.