While the third entry in this popular series might be a feature-length cartoon, it…da dah da dah duh da Circus Afro, polka dot polka dot Afro!
When the first Madagascar (2005) film came out seven years ago, DreamWorks Animation was struggling to find something to fill the void between Shrek films. The woeful Shark Tale (2004) had performed well at the box office, but was critically mauled, coming just over a year after Pixar’s amazing Finding Nemo (2003). Madagascar brought us a familiar and relatable tale, about a group of animals in a New York zoo who wish to see the outside world, but inadvertently wound up getting shipped back to Africa, only to be shipwrecked on the island of Madagascar. The film has spawned several sequels and a television spin-off, and now they’re back to go on the run from the stereotypes of Europe.
Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) and his friends are still trapped in Africa, and he worries they will never escape. After being presented a miniature model of New York City for his birthday, Alex encourages zebra Marty (Chris Rock), giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) and hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) to go to Monte Carlo to get the penguins so they can return home. However, when they cause a spectacle, they are on the run through Europe from Monaco Animal Control officer Captain Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand). Finding refuge in a circus, they convince Vitaly the tiger (Bryan Cranston) and jaguar Gia (Jessica Chastain) that they are also circus animals in the hopes of getting a gig that will take them home.
While feature animation has worked hard over the last few years to prove that it can be as compelling, dramatic and as human as live action, the joy of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted is that it throws all that out of the window. Defying the laws of physics and logic, the trio of directors has staged an unabashed cartoon, literally firing animals out of a canon, swinging them off wires and coupling a bear on a motorbike with a lemur. The animation itself is gorgeous, also relying on simple designs but imbuing them with detailed amounts of hair that you just want to curl up inside. The newest characters fare the best, benefitting from being completely original designs, and the sheer amount of colour coming at audiences in 3D may be permanently burned into retinas.
Thanks to a familiar family of recognisable voices, connecting to the film requires very little effort from the audience, but pays off with an entertaining run of set-pieces and gags. The impressive award-winning list of new voices from McDormand, Cranston and Chastain are all heavily accented, and realistically could have been played by anyone, perhaps another by-product of the culture of stunt-casting animation. Yet it also ensures that these caricatures are imbued with something more than silly voices, even if the ultimate aim is a few cheap laughs at the expense of the Europeans.
Intriguingly, Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg) is listed as one of the co-writers on the film, although apart from the presence of the always neurotic Stiller, and some politically confusing dialogue about the animals ‘taking back the circus’ (didn’t we all agree that was cruelty?), it is difficult to see any of his trademarks on the series entry. While a spin-off for the series, The Penguins of Madagascar, is set for 2015, this third film proves that there is still plenty of life left in this fun franchise. If nothing else, the infectious Chris Rock-led “Circus Afro” tune will be an mind-battering anthem for the next few months.