End of Steaks, Friend at Stake

Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) likes his lifestyle in Central Park Zoo. He is fed sirloin steaks and loves his roaring gig in the spotlight. His best pal Marty (Chris Rock) is a zebra who recently hit the middle age of ten. Who can blame him if he’s having a life crisis? The zebra is pondering about life outside the zoo. He’s misinformed his wildlife dream exists in Connecticut. One night, he escapes and struts through the streets of Manhattan in search of Grand Central Station. Moments later, a worried Alex goes after him. He is joined by the no-nonsense Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and the hypochondriac giraffe named Melman (David Schwimmer). The animal trio then decides to ride the subway to much horror of the commuters. Luckily, they find Marty. Unluckily, they are found by authorities, who misinterpret their flee as a product of unhappy life in captivity. The lion, zebra, hippo, and the giraffe are then shipped off to a Kenyan wildlife preserve, only to find themselves in Madagascar when four sly penguins hi-jack the ship. Now that they are in the wild, Alex begins to channel his animal instincts and his friends start to look like food.

The movie is very thin, plot-wise. The movie desperately depended on its stars’ voice talents and visually pop-ish gags to get by. That is not the way to survive, not when Pixar is consistently releasing solid hits. I think the star power should be toned down. When I was watching the movie, I wasn’t thinking of the animal characters. I was thinking of the actors (or in Schwimmer’s case, his Ross in “Friends”). Ben Stiller can be extremely funny but when he misses, like this one, he becomes extremely annoying. Of all the voice works done, I think only Chris Rock managed to pull it off and does it without a line of his own brand of for-adults-only humor. I wonder if he’s funnier in “The Longest Yard.”

The pop references are mediocre. It plays the sweeping theme of “Born Free” and borrows a visual imagery from “American Beauty.” The best one is probably a quick stab at “Castaway,” in an out-of-nowhere execution that is done frequently in “Family Guy.” And speaking of “Family Guy”, my favorite characters are the cute but scheming penguins because they pleasantly reminded me of the TV show’s Machiavellian infant Stewie. There’s no argument that the implanted jokes in “Madagascar” are plenty, but what a joke that only few warrant a laugh. I think only kids will find it really really funny. I wonder if it’s funnier if I watch it with my little cousins.

I believe the movie had something concrete though. They could have explored something new when they paired a predator and a prey to be best friends. But the intriguing idea is in the wrong medium. There’s no way a family movie would seriously take the horrific idea of Alex chomping on Marty. Thus, the movie makes an even graver mistake by inviting the idea, knowing it has to fabricate a phony ending. A starving lion and a tasty zebra living in harmony? Come on! There should be a line drawn in humanizing animals. “Madagascar” can prance all it wants but it ends up lame. I wonder if an island country out there is offended.

Grade: C