3 stars


16th July 2005

It must suck knowing that you can hire all the celebrity voiceovers in the world and create some of the most wonderful computer animation ever seen, and still have to play second fiddle to another company - compare any DreamWorks movie to any Pixar movie and they come off distinctly second-rate. Why? Pixar simply have a much better team of writers. Films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and, more recently, The Incredibles, all boast intelligent and well-crafted scripts, not to mention characters that kids and adults can both invest in. DreamWorks, on the other hand, always seem more interested in forking out cash for the latest big stars, while cramming their movies full of pop-culture references in a desperate attempt to be noticed. Madagascar doesn't go any way towards breaking the trend, but thankfully isn't anywhere near as wretched as Shark Tale.

Don't forget that this is a film meant mainly for kids, so perhaps it's best not to analyse it too much and just sit back and enjoy the ride. In that respect, Madagascar is an enjoyable children's adventure; colourful and engaging with a short running time and cuddly characters your kids will no doubt want to take home as raise as their own. However, if, like me, you are not seven years old and are not swayed by fast food merchandise or plush toys, you might find Madagascar lacking some of the magic that made previous DreamWorks movies like Shrek so successful. It's got the recognisable voices, in Ben Stiller, David 'I'll always be Ross from Friends' Schwimmer and Chris Rock. It's got beautifully rendered animation and some truly eye-popping environments. It's even got a few neat gags that'll go over the heads of the toddlers (the Castaway and Planet of the Apes spoofs are spot-on). But inevitably, you'll realise it's just not as rewarding as other movies in the same genre.

Madagascar tells the story of four pampered animals living the life in the New York City zoo, who are unwittingly shipped out to the titular African isle after an ill-conceived break out attempt. There's Alex the overindulged lion, Marty the adventurous zebra, Melman the neurotic giraffe and Gloria, the sass-talking hippo, all of whom find themselves struggling to adapt to life in the wild. Naturally there's some good material to be milked out of the old 'fish out of water' scenario, with Schwimmer's highly strung giraffe providing much of the mirth early on (his tottering escape from the zoo, complete with tissue boxes on his hooves, will please the kids). Things threaten to take a darker turn when the increasingly feral Alex starts having designs on his friends' meaty behinds, but as usual, everything is wrapped up in a nice furry little ball, with the overriding themes of friendship and acceptance winning the day as usual. This is one of Madagascar's major downfalls - it's far too undemanding and chooses the easy sight gags over anything more challenging every time. There's nothing here you haven't seen here before - even Chris Rock's zebra is strikingly reminiscent of Shrek's Donkey.

The crack commando team of penguins provide the best laughs, when their breakout and subsequent pilgrimage to Antarctica doesn't quite work out the way they expected ("Well... this sucks"), but it's a shame they don't get a little more screen time. Likewise the posh, poo-flinging monkeys, who don't get much of a look-in at all - it seems like their role was cut short for some reason, but it'll probably end up as a DVD extra or something. Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G) provides a welcome distraction in the form of lemur King Julian, but whenever the action moves back to the main foursome, the lack of quality in the script really starts to show. It's a shame the wonderful animation is wasted on what basically amount to relatively unexciting characters and tired old slapstick.

Like I said, Madagscar has a lot going for it if you're looking for a fun, fleeting diversion, but all too often it opts for style over substance and is treading over well-worn ground - there's no sparkle, no wit and no real point to the story at all. DreamWorks can hire all the big names in the world, but as Pixar have shown, there's still no real substitute for a brilliant team of scribes. Enjoyable enough then, but perhaps only if you turn off your brain and wake up your inner child. Beware though; it WILL want to buy all the toys. Ali

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