The Circle of Life becomes the Three-Ring Circus of Life in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.
Remember how Robin Williams in Aladdin giddily exploded the dignity of 2-D animated classics right after they reached a high point in Beauty and the Beast? Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa gleefully pulverizes the moods and methods of 2-D and 3-D cartoon classics alike with a plot that turns The Lion King on its head.
Alex (voice of Ben Stiller) started the first film as the King of New York, the headline performer at the Central Park Zoo. In the prologue to Escape 2 Africa, we learn that he began life in Africa, the presumptive heir to his dad, Zuba (the late Bernie Mac), the King of the Jungle. When the main story kicks in, Alex and his fellow expatriates on the island of Madagascar - Marty the adventure-loving zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the hypochondriac giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the sensuous hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) - head back to New York, thanks to the series' ever-inventive penguin commandos, who repair a dilapidated World War II plane and turn it into Air Penguin.
As if to signal early on that this film will be a series of wild curves, Sacha Baron Cohen's deliciously daft Julien, king of the lemurs, flies off with them. When the plane goes into a dive, Julien lifts his arms like a kid on a roller coaster and laughs manically as he explains to his sidekick, Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer), "It's more fun when you raise your arms like this!" Not getting to New York proves to be the most fun. Destiny and the limits of spit-and-bubble-gum construction put Air Penguin down in Africa. There, Alex discovers his parents (Sherri Shepherd voices his mom) and fumbles the traditional rituals of manhood.
Shrek and the underrated Shrek the Third spun neo-vaudeville twists on classic fairy tales. Escape 2 Africa spills over with more free-form craziness. It's like what would happen if Comedy Central and the Animal Planet co-produced Roots III. Even the human characters, usually a drag on creature cartoons, add to the spirited anarchy. In her take-charge attitude, Nana (Elisa Gabrielli) represents the best and worst of New York rolled into one feisty package. She wields a handbag like a mace.
The film boasts a story peg that supplies it with a sturdy skeleton: Alex's fumbling of his rite of passage in a wrestling ring leads him to exile in the wilderness. But the filmmakers take apart that skeleton and put it back together like a Tinkertoy contraption. Alex teaches Zuba that thespian and choreographic skills can be as useful as Greco-Roman-African wrestling. Marty, ecstatic at becoming part of a herd of zebras, never stops pondering whether he's white on black or black on white, and fears he will lose his individuality. Moto Moto (will.i.am), the hunkiest hippo in a whole bloat of hippos, woos Gloria, who comes to see that she may find romance outside her own species. And Melman, who helps her make that discovery, uses his first-hoof knowledge of ailments to become a witch doctor for the local tower of giraffes. But he finds that nothing can level or revive an ailing soul like love.
The outcomes of all the mini-dramedies are too messy and equivocal to produce morals; that's just as it should be in a farce about confusion. Co-directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath are most intent on completing the circle of comedy.
Make that a parabola of comedy. Menageries of characters trace loony curlicues in and around the narrative; that's what makes Escape 2 Africa a gas. The penguins outdo the first film's antics in hilarity. Skipper (McGrath) smacks around underlings such as Kowalski as if they were the seasoned captain and recruits of an off-the-wall World War II film bomber crew. When Skipper moves to reassemble the plane and puts out a call for opposable thumbs, those engaging chimps, dapper Mason and frolicsome Phil, answer the call - with troupes of monkeys.
Each twist comes with verbal or visual jokes expressed in dialogue or design, such as Melman's decorative snout bone, which clips to his face like a snap-on tie. And the voice actors are as slap happy as a carload of chimps. For undiluted unctuousness, Alec Baldwin outdoes The Lion King's Jeremy Irons as Makunga, Zuba's and Alex's rival for the throne. No one has ever been more engagingly manic than Cohen as Julien, perhaps because he's so musically inventive, especially when he sings Tina Turner's "Private Dancer" as a ruminative ballad. Skipper wouldn't be half as funny had co-director McGrath not lent his own voice to the penguin with an immovable and opaque manliness.
In a mini-masterpiece of deadpan cartooning, Skipper doesn't just put a dashboard hula doll on his airplane control panel - he also falls in love with the figure, testing the bounds of civil unions. It's the crowning touch for a film whose blend of madcap exploits and generosity makes it both hilarious and endearing.
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
(DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith, Bernie Mac, Sacha Baron Cohen. Rated PG for some mild crude humor. Time 89 minutes.
Michael Sragow talks to the "Madagascar" directors. PG 3