Review Date: 6.14.05
The new animated film, Madagascar, is far more adult than juvenile in its target audience. It's about a bunch of urban animals, residents of the Central Park Zoo, who find themselves on a tropical island (Madagascar) after one of their number, Marty the zebra (played by Chris Rock) suffers the blues on his birthday. The wise guy penguins, who've been planning a break out for a while, inspire him to believe it's possible to escape and so he does, trotting over to Grand Central Station with the plan of taking a train to Connecticut. His pals, Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) are so worried they pursue with the penguins in tow.
Between the accents and the wonderful jokes about New York City, it's hard to imagine this initial segment appealing as much to kids as it must to adults, especially folks who know something about the Big Apple. Marty, for example, spends his time working out on a treadmill facing a mosaic picture of Madagascar, while Alex poses as a fierce lion for the entertainment of city folk, and everyone winks and nods. Melman is a hypochondriac, while Gloria throws her weight around in best bossy girl fashion. Once out of place, however-that is, in Grand Central Station-the fiction that these are animal-people dissolves and the movie cleverly shows us how the tables are turned and how these anthropomorphic zoo folk are subjected to a rude shock, the main one being that people are really scared of lions.
And in fact, the whole movie turns on the conceit of what has happened to these animals as a result of their civilizing environment: they have forgotten who they are in the wild. But instead of moralizing about how animals should discover their true wild nature, this movie opts for urban cosmopolitanism and chooses the city instead. If it's a New York City movie, you can laugh and enjoy; but if it's an allegory of civilization versus savagery in general, the message becomes just a tad bit more disturbing.
Madagascar is run by lemurs-and guess what, that's kind of true! This is the most riotously funny part of the film but also the part that sort of makes us squirm. These folks aren't too bright, they spend a lot of time dancing, they worship a king-played by Sacha Baron Cohen-and they come across as very primitive. Meanwhile, what happens when man casts off his humanizing nature? He becomes a "cannibal," of course! That's not quite right, because the zebra is, after all, the natural prey of the lion, but in this case Marty and Alex are best friends, and you're really not supposed to want to eat your best friend. The story of Alex's struggle with his primitive nature occupies the latter half of the movie, and you get the feeling (another adult message, certainly) that Alex is constantly torn between wanting to be with and wanting to eat his best buddy-another joke about that fine line we describe in either case as hunger.
I know, I know, you're thinking I'm making too much of it, and it's true you don't have to see these messages in the film. Madagascar is a good kid's and family movie. But go see it and I think you'll agree: this one's definitely got a tongue-in-cheek attitude, one that makes it a bit more fun for the grown-ups than the usual children's movie fare-hey, it's even rated PG instead of G.
Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.