I’ll start this review by explaining that I judge movies not just by their cinematic quality but also by how well they achieve the purpose they were created for. Because of this, I tend to go into movies like this with a different set of standards than I would for a movie like Prometheus. That is why even though Prometheus had a bigger budget, deeper characters and a more interesting premise, I ended up enjoying the 90 minutes I spent with the multitude of celebrity voices, national stereotypes and pop culture references of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted even more.
While I’m still firmly on team Pixar (even with the huge disappointment of Cars 2), every now and then Dreamworks has managed to pull me briefly to their side of the animation spectrum with movies like How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda. Dreamworks’ brand of humor has always been hit or miss with me, but the biggest problem I have with the production company isn’t their lack of subtlety but rather their apparent policy of following every successful film they make with remake after remake until there is no milk left in the franchise cash cow (cough cough Shrek Forever After cough cough). While Madagascar 3 is a rare example of a franchise actual increasing in quality over time, I still wish we could see more of the kind of innovative writing and creativity from Dreamworks which led Pixar to bring us movies like Wall-E and Up.
In any case, the bar for success for a movie like Madagascar 3 is how palatable it manages to make family entertainment for the parents taking their kids to go see it. One thing that Dreamworks has always done well is embedding little nuggets of adult-oriented humor into their movies with just enough innuendo to hide it from the “impressionable” younger viewers. In Madagascar 3‘s case this is done exceptionally well, including references to Shawshank redemption and (to my delight) Monty Python’s Flying Circus. That being said I’m not going to pretend that the majority of the humor wasn’t hammy slapstick and ironic-rimshot worthy one liners, but I’m also not going to pretend that I wasn’t laughing with the rest of the theater for nearly all of it.
After three movies and seven years I am still not a huge fan of the celebrity voices they chose to voice the four leads. Alex (Ben Stiller), Marty (Chris Rock), Melman (David Shwimmer) and Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) are all fine, but it is the supporting characters which really end up stealing the show here. On top of the lemurs and penguins from the previous movies, a whole circus worth of new characters has now entered the fold and for the most part, they do more than pull their weight. In spite of the massively overdone foreign accents (courtesy of Martin Short, Jessica Chastain and Bryan Cranston), the addition of the circus crew yields a continuous stream of very funny scenes which do well to distract from the admittedly cliche story line. While I still love any scene involving banter between the penguins, my favorite part of the entire movie was the adorably awkward and quirky romance between King Julian (Sasha Baron Cohen) and Sonia the Tricycling Bear. There’s just something perfect about putting the most over-the-top character of the movie in a mostly one way romance with the least anthropomorphic and only non-speaking character (especially when that character is a large bear in a tutu riding a tiny tricycle).
Even with all of the amusing characters above however, Madagascar 3 is not without its detractors. One of these as I mentioned above was the eyeroll worthy exaggeration of most of the fake foreign accents. No character shows this better than the film’s villain, Monaco Animal Control Captain Chantel DuBois, voiced by Frances McDormand. Now I am a big fan of Ms. McDormand and I’m sure this role was a lot of fun for her to do, but the combination of her overly exaggerated French accent and the even more overly exaggerated animation of her character lead to more than a couple meetings of my palm and face. Other recent movies like Cars 2 have also seemed to have this problem when they expand the franchise to an international setting, and while I understand that movies and television have always used stereotypes to take the place of time-consuming character development, just once I wish I could see an animated Frenchman without a pencil thin mustache or a cartoon Italian who sounds at least slightly intelligent.
When it comes down to it, what I really appreciate about this movie is that it delivers on what it is selling. What you see is no more or no less than what you hoped to see, and it may be even a bit more than what you’d expected. The laughs are in great supply and the animation is in top form, with everything backed up by a brisk story and a soundtrack which for better or worse is taken straight from the past year’s Top 40 charts. If you’re looking for a modern animated classic, you might be disappointed. If you are looking for an entertaining diversion from everyday life, however, you will be more than satisfied.