Another product of the fun factory

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Another product of the fun factory

From the corporate entity that brought us “Shrek” comes “Madagascar,” an all-new shipment of oppressive animated whimsy. Innovations abound; this time, Chris Rock is the sassy black sidekick.
But you’re a savvy consumer. You and the kids have been through “Finding Nemo,” “Monsters Inc.,” “Shrek 2” and several other digitized, high-concept wonderlands that have all blurred together into the same chirpy ache in the back of your head. You’ve bought the DVDs and the coloring books and the kiddie backpacks and the plush-toy clownfish. If you’re going to plunk down the shekels for another one of these, you want to know that your expectations are going to be met.
First, the gimmick. The insect world, the undersea world, dinosaurs, fairy tales, superheroes, toys ― all these realms and several others have already been explored by that magical partnership of software technicians and smack-talking sitcom actors. “Robots” is about to open in Korea, and there’s something called “Cars” in the works for next year. The pasture is starting to look a little overgrazed. In “Madagascar,” it’s zoo animals, and the wacky consequences that ensue when these civilized beasties are released into the wild. It’ll do.
Next, the vocal talent. This is delicate. A certain amount of subversive hipness is crucial, because you’ve got adults to please. A lot of those five-year-olds have parents who used to read The Onion. But you can’t go overboard. It has to be the kind of subversion that can be sold on a cereal box. In “Madagascar,” this equation has resulted in Sacha Baron Cohen, cable TV’s Ali G, singing the 1994 dance hit “I Like to Move It” as a lemur. Actually, that scene’s pretty funny. The movie gets good whenever Cohen’s in it, which is for maybe 15 minutes total.
The voice cast is headed up by Ben Stiller as the Central Park Zoo’s pampered superstar lion, who goes into urban-comfort withdrawal when he winds up in Madagascar; Rock as his zebra buddy; David “Friends” Schwimmer as a hypochondriac giraffe, and Jada Pinkett Smith, who, as a hippo, is called upon to be sassy. Cedric the Entertainer has a small part. That’s a reasonable blend of box-office dependability and 1990s semi-edginess.
“Madagascar’s” ticket buyers will expect plenty of stale pop culture references, this genre’s stock in trade, and they won’t be disappointed. There are winking references, most of them oddly pointless, to “Hawaii Five-O,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Cast Away” and a host of other strange choices, including “American Beauty.” What kids are supposed to get out of the dream sequence in which the lion sees raw steaks fluttering down from the sky, like the rose petals that famously drifted onto Kevin Spacey, is unclear, but the fact that “American Beauty” and “Madagascar” are both DreamWorks products (as is “Cast Away,” for that matter) might be a clue to the motivation. I guess there’s no point complaining about it. The animation is colorful and slick; at the end, there’s a moral lesson for the kids about something or other. There are four or five really good gut laughs. Go ahead, take the kids, or the girlfriend, or whoever. If you don’t like this one, there’ll be another one along soon enough.

Animation / English
78 min.
Now playing

By David Moll
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