Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

The strangest thing about the Madagascar franchise, I feel, is that the funniest jokes in both of them are Twilight Zone references – and they both happened on planes – the other strange thing is how anyone can think that the character designs of the four leads are anything approaching pleasant.

Madagascar: Back 2 Africa is not only an example of obnoxious number substituting for a word (at least Step Up 2 The Streets did it with class), it’s also a prime example of franchising a property whose title is thematically incompatible with any sequels. Even if there are more Kung Fu Panda films (freakin’ five of them), they could either make sense due to the continued presence of Po or present a series of films named for separate members of the Furious Five.

Escape 2 Africa, however, is a vaguely racist, all-over-the-place movie that once and for all proves that black people zebras all look the same and share a uniculture, and once again showcases a theatrical son whose father is disappointed he isn’t a “real lion”. Hmm indeed.
I guess it’s not terrible, though, so that’s probably something.

Our ragtag team of angular animals get on their remodelled plane and escape Madagascar but their plane, alas, crashes … in Africa! On the very same reserve where Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller) was born before a string of unlikely events directed him to fame and fortune in New York!
At the reserve he meets his family, and all sorts of dynamics are tested, etcetera. There’s also a story about all zebras being the same, about hippopotamus men being shallow and giraffes being sweet despite their hypochondriac nature. Combine that with the human element that was lacking in the first film, and here pushes the boundaries of logic to create a chance for Alex’s redemption, and you have Madagascar: Back 2 Africa. And all this in under ninety minutes!

It’s hard to deny that Back 2 Africa has quite a few funny moments, but it’s equally hard to suggest that there’s a cohesive whole going on here. “Africa” – which I’ll have you know is not, in fact, a country (and India isn’t in it, either) – is a setting for a few very loosely collected things to happen. You could call it an animated ensemble movie, a sort of Love Actually with lions and such, but that would be doing the ensemble movie a great disservice: full story arcs with ample characterisation aren’t really on offer here.

I can barely remember how Madagascar went, beyond the “To Serve Man” and “You maniacs! You blew it up!” jokes, but I’m fairly certain there was supposed to be some sort of “team” thing going on there. Here, the core animals of Alex, Marty (Chris Rock, a zebra), Gloria (Jada Pinkett-Smith, a hippo) and Melman (David Schwimmer, a giraffe) operate mostly independently – even if there is a giraffe and hippo romance subplot submersed in there somewhere, and Alex takes Marty’s friendship for granted. It’s like the characters free float until such time as the “main plot” – such as it is – calls for them.

So the movie has its sentimental moments, because it is (in theory, anyway), a family reunion movie, but who would ever have thought that Ben Stiller’s parents were Bernie Mac and Sherri “I don’t know if the world is flat” Shepherd? This is one of Mac’s final roles, but he sounds pretty much unrecognisable. Zuba’s (Zubaz, more like!) relationship with Alex is pretty nice. When Zuba realises that Alex knows nothing of fighting and is into dancing and theatre, he’s disappointed that he’s not a “real lion”. So you’ve also got the whole theatre/sports dichotomy going on, and we all know what that is implying. It’s also the only plot that goes anywhere, so that’s good.

Perhaps the weakest part of the story is the human element, which was pointedly missing in the first film: humans served as the catalyst for the animals’ trip to Madagascar, and then they were never seen again. Here, the penguins (always funny) have a legitimately hilarious scheme going on. Unfortunately, this scheme leads to displaced humans who think they’re worthy of screen time. The plot that the humans find themselves involved in makes no sense beyond the creation of drama. If the humans can do what they did towards the end of the film, you’re damned right they could probably find society. About the only good thing about these segments is that Phil LaMarr gets to do a voice, and it’s not really worth that.

The entire project is so piecemeal that to criticise it is really to point out each of its flaws individually, and there’s no point in that. I think that the moral of this movie is that it’s amusing, but its lack of coherence prevents it from being true entertainment. Maybe I’m being too harsh in my judgement because, unlike Bedtime Stories, this doesn’t totally suck, but really, a movie shouldn’t be a collection of sketches. I am fully aware that there have been successful sketch movies, but a “heady” property like Madagascar doesn’t work like that. Back 2 Africa may make you laugh at the jokes, but you’ll almost certainly cry at the inconsequence of the exercise. Dreamworks, I know you can make good movies: Kung Fu Panda was one of them (and in the very same year of release, too!). Make some more, please – and make them aesthetically pleasing! An animal isn’t a series of geometric shapes, damnit!

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