Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
June 2012

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

Brought to you by Ritalin

The frenetic 'Madagascar 3' jumps all over the place, with varying results

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted
Paramount Pictures
Director: Eric Darnell and Noah Baumbach
Screenplay: Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts
Starring: The voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Bryan Cranston, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jessica Chastain, Martin Short and Frances McDormand
Rated PG / 1 hour, 33 minutes
Opened June 8, 2012
(out of four)

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted is a movie designed squarely for the ADD demographic. It completely shifts gears from scene to scene or even shot to shot, each sequence going in a different direction than the last. I wasn't sure if I should be impressed by the randomness or frustrated by the lack of focus. I'll split the difference and say I was frustratedly impressed.

Perhaps it's telling that the film has more credited directors (three) than writers (two). To say it lacks cohesion - or any overriding idea of what it wants to do - would be an understatement. There are enough strange and amusing gags and moments to capture our attention, but they're typically of the one-off variety, unrelated to any specific big-picture aesthetic.

The storytelling ethos is simply to keep things moving as quickly as possible. This approach works with, say, screwball comedy, where each development builds upon and complicates the last. But in the case of Madagascar 3, it just rushes from one sequence to the next hoping to keep kids' eyes attentive.

By that modest standard, the film succeeds - and by any standard, it's a vast improvement over the original Madagascar (I didn't see the sequel). There are two inspired sequences in particular, both involving the circus our four friends have infiltrated to escape the authorities. One is a flashback sequence involving Vitaly the Tiger (voiced by Bryan Cranston, doing his best Antonio Banderas impression even though the character is supposed to be Russian) that makes great use of forced perspective; the other involves an elaborate acrobatic routine, with its flashy neons on spare, dark backgrounds (think "Pink Elephants on Parade") and its loopy interpretation of geographic space.

There's a pattern I've noticed recently. In a number of second-rate animated movies (the ones that don't have the Bird-, Chomet-, Miyazaki-, Stanton-, Park- or Docter-like focus of vision), the real highlights have been the self-contained sequences that have given the animators the most room to breathe. That was true of specific segments in, among others, The Lorax, Megamind, Kung Fu Panda 2, Ice Age 3 and now Madagascar 3. The most imaginative elements of those films tend to stand out, but they also call attention to the sub-standard quality of the rest of the animation.

For this franchise in particular, the animation was never its strong suit. I never liked its cheaply drawn characters (which look more like crude prototypes than full-fledged pieces of animation) nor its bland city and jungle backgrounds. But in those two sequences mentioned above, the animation finally makes a visceral imprint. At least for a few minutes at a time.

I never saw the second film in the series, but from what I can gather, Europe's Most Wanted picks up right about where its predecessor left off. In any case, the penguins are off gambling in Monte Carlo, while Alex, Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) are toiling away in Africa. The four of them quickly decide they should head to Monte Carlo on their own, rendezvous with the penguins (and chimpanzees) and finally get themselves back to New York City.

But complications ensue when animal-control officer Captain DuBois (Frances McDormand) - whose wall is decorated like that of a big- (and small-) game hunter - sets her sights on Alex and decides she will stop at nothing to get her hands on him.

The film has some wonderfully absurd non-sequiturs, one-liners and comedic gags (including a funny, out-of-nowhere Inception homage), but they're thrown into a narrative that doesn't quite know what to do with itself. It doesn't know how or when to use its villain. It doesn't know how to incorporate its two half-hearted romances - one between Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) and Gia the Jaguar (the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain); and the other between Julien, the flamboyant lemur (Sacha Baron Cohen), and a tricycle-riding bear named Sonya. (The way the latter romance plays into the finale is curiously lazy.) And the film closes with a trifecta of endings that a more disciplined film would have found a way to, if not combine, then at least organize and pace more cohesively.

As far as the movie is concerned, none of that seems to matter. So long as something is happening on screen at all times, it doesn't much matter what that something is.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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