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What's the big deal?
Madagascar is an animated family comedy film released in 2005 and was produced and distributed by DreamWorks. The film follows a number of animals who attempt to escape from New York's Central Park Zoo and find themselves stranded in the wild on the remote island of Madagascar. The film stars the vocal talents of Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen and Cedric the Entertainer. The film received a fairly mixed response from critics who praised the film's sense of fun but felt it paled compared to other CG-animated films at the time such as The Incredibles and Finding Nemo. However, the film was a big hit at the box office with global takings of $556 million (making it the sixth biggest film of the year) which led to the film inevitably becoming a franchise. The first sequel - Escape 2 Africa - arrived in 2008 and the third film - Europe's Most Wanted - was released in 2012 while a spin-off film Penguins Of Madagascar was released in 2014. The film was also followed by numerous short films, TV shows, video games and endless merchandise.
What's it about?
In the prestigious Central Park Zoo, Marty the zebra is celebrated his tenth birthday together with his friends Melman (a giraffe) and Gloria (a hippopotamus) and Alex, a lion who loves being the centre of attention at the zoo. But Marty is not happy and often dreams about one day returning to the wild, despite the others being quite content where they are. Not long after, Marty learns that a group of psychotic penguins are planning an audacious escape attempt and Marty decides to join them. Alex, Melman and Gloria follow him to try and persuade him to return but they are apprehended at Grand Central Station and the lot of them are tranquilized.
Under pressure from animal rights activists, the zoo decide to relocate the animals to a sanctuary in Kenya instead of returning them to the zoo. However, the penguins manage to hijack the ship containing them and instead direct themselves to their native Antarctica. En route, Marty and the others are washed overboard and soon find themselves washed up and alone on a beach in Madagascar. For Marty, this is a dream come true but how well will they adapt in the wild without their familiar creature comforts?
What's to like?
Madagascar is not a film for anyone looking for photo-realism in its visuals. Instead, the film adopts a unique aesthetic and concentrates on being a really fun and energetic adventure. It's certainly colourful and great to watch although the visuals have dated a little these days as technology moves ever on. The best scenes are definitely in the first half of the film as the animals discuss whether they are better in the zoo or in the wild before running wild around New York. For younger viewers, this is fantastic stuff as the four central characters all have separate personalities and are well performed by the big name cast. But the undoubted highlight is provided by the penguins who quietly kick things in motion and are the funniest thing in the entire film. Can't quite work out why they took so long to get their own spin-off.
But the film is more than a simple child friendly exercise in chaos. The characters have a number of visual ticks and personality traits that endear them to older viewers (the penguins especially) and the film has plenty of humour to appeal to adults as well. Sadly, this doesn't continue as the film goes on but it remains heavily focused on younger viewers - Baron Cohen's regal ring-tailed lemur King Julien pops up and even gets his own musical number which I guarantee will be stuck in your head when the film finishes. It's hard to deny that Madagascar is a fun and easy film to watch and most families will enjoy themselves watching it.
- Speaking of King Julien, Baron Cohen's character was originally intended to be brief, two-line character. When he auditioned for the role, Baron Cohen improvised the Indian accent and an additional eight minutes of dialogue including mentioning a gecko. Not only did the filmmakers expand the character but also created a gecko specifically for the requisite shot.
- The penguins originated from a different project that co-director Eric Darnell was developing at the time, a film called Rockumentary about a Beatles-esque rock band. After it was cancelled, he was moved onto Madagascar and simply bought the penguins with him and made them military commandos instead of musicians.
- Co-director Tom McGrath wanted veteran actor Robert Stack to provide the voice for Skipper, the lead penguin but Stack sadly died just two weeks before production started. McGrath then provided a stop-gap voice track for the character but it remained in the finished film as well as the subsequent sequels.
What's not to like?
Unfortunately, the film can't manage to stand out from the competition that much. Even at the time when CG movies were a relative rarity, Madagascar felt too similar to other films and looked far too angular compared to the smoothness of Pixar's output. If I was being harsh, I could call the visuals 'unfinished'. The film's second half also badly brings things down as the story becomes bogged down and the film just doesn't go anywhere. It isn't as much fun as the first half in New York and I felt like it dragged on without a clear idea of where it was going.
The film also falls victim to a trend at the time where CG animated films would have a cast list populated by A-listers, regardless of whether they were right for the role or not. Stiller and Rock are decent enough as Alex and Marty but Schwimmer is little more than reprising his role from Friends and Pinkett Smith doesn't make that strong an impression either although I reckon this is partly due to her character being underwritten. The film just can't keep adults entertained the same way a Pixar film does, which generally appeal to both adults and children in a seamless fashion. The film is an adequate time-passer but lacks ambition and is unevenly paced.
Should I watch it?
Adults won't mind about the dated visuals so long as the film keeps their kids entertained and this may save Madagascar to some extent. It's a great film for younger viewers and it promises much in the beginning but it can't maintain its momentum. But you shouldn't dismiss it because there is still a lot to recommend such as the brilliant penguins and the sheer sense of fun. It's especially deep or anything but you could do a lot worse.
Great For: younger viewers, family film nights, animal lovers
Not So Great For: pushing the boundaries of CG animation, hypochondriacs, challenging the competition
What else should I watch?
At the time, DreamWorks had only released four other CG films before this one and the only one that struck a chord with audiences was Shrek, which was so popular that Shrek 2 came out not long after. The other films - the rip-off of A Bug's Life, Antz and the hugely forgettable Shark Tale - didn't exactly set the world alight either but thankfully, they have since managed to produce the odd hit since then. Take the hugely entertaining Kung Fu Panda as example or the equally family friendly Trolls, both of which have become franchises in their own right.
But sometimes, it isn't about becoming a marketing phenomenon. Pixar, the original pioneers of CG animation, have grown in stature since they burst onto the scene in 1995 with Toy Story. Indeed, Roger Ebert once claimed that Pixar was the first movie studio to become a star. Whether its crowd-pleasing efforts like Finding Nemo or Monsters, Inc., more thoughtful and artistic ventures like WALL-E and Inside Out or blockbusting sequels like Incredibles 2 or Toy Story 4, Pixar continue to be one of the most creative and exciting studios operating today. I have long been a fan of their work and despite the odd misfire here and there, I eagerly anticipate each of their releases.
Main Cast (voice performance)
Alex, a lion
Marty, a zebra
Melman, a giraffe
Jada Pinkett Smith
Gloria, a hippopotamus
Sacha Baron Cohen
King Julien XIII, a ring-tailed lemur
Cedric The Entertainer
Maurice, an aye-aye lemur
Skipper, a penguin
Kowalski, a penguin
|Directors||Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath|
Mark Burton, Billy Frolick, Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath
Release Date (UK)
15th July, 2005
Animation, Adventure, Comedy, Family
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