Keeping 'Madagascar' merry

The Baltimore Sun

Co-directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, over the phone from Los Angeles, react merrily to the notion that Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is the Godfather Part II of computer-animated sequels. Speaking in one voice, they laugh when they say, "Great comparison!"

Hey, I protest, I mean it. After all, like Godfather Part II, it's a sequel and a prequel about fathers and sons. It goes back in time to show the African roots of Alex (voice of Ben Stiller), the lion who considered himself the King of New York when he headlined the Central Park Zoo at the start of Madagascar. Then it jumps ahead to reconnect him with his dad (Bernie Mac), a real king of the jungle. (You see, en route from Madagascar to New York via Air Penguin, Alex and his friends conveniently crash-land in Africa.)

I'm not the only reviewer to lavish praise on E2A the way reviewers did on GII in 1974. Variety's Todd McCarthy has called it "the rare animated sequel that reps a notable improvement on its predecessor in every department."

All Darnell and McGrath want to make clear is that any kind of Hollywood homage in the Madagascar series will be rendered in the satiric manner of the old Warner Bros. cartoons that made comic hash from beloved classics such as The Adventures of Robin Hood.

These gifted visual jokers would love to be considered the antic heirs to Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Bob Clampett, the geniuses who gave Warner Bros. as many cartoon stars (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, the Road Runner) as MGM had live ones.

McGrath says, "Eric and I are huge fans of Avery and Clampett. At the time of the first Madagascar, nothing resembling what they did ... was being done in computer animation."

Just a few years ago, most cutting-edge animators were seizing opportunities to heighten reality instead of slapping it around. They explored the outer limits of photo-realism, and staged even far-out slapstick with logical characters in recognizable settings.

When it came to Madagascar, though, Darnell and McGrath thought that "broad comedy" and stylization would go hand in hand - and discovered that 2D artists making the transition to computers reveled in the chance to experiment with caricatures and staccato punch-line timing.

A slew of computer-animation tools have enabled artists at Pixar and other companies to execute, impeccably, a madcap form of mimesis. Darnell and McGrath pushed for animation that would go the other way. For example, computers have made it relatively easy for operators to duplicate anatomy, so that a character flexing his arm would naturally show a good strong bicep. "But why not flatten that bicep out," asks Darnell, "or have it bulging out on the other side? And why not have a jaw dropping to the floor?" - evoking Avery's nightclub-prowling wolf, who expressed sexual attraction in the most mind-bending ways.

They give the lion's share of credit to character designer Craig Kellman. As McGrath says in The Art of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, "Craig's designs dictated that this world would be slightly askew. There would be no right angles. There would be a lot of straight lines against smooth curves." But it was Darnell and McGrath who carried Kellman's spirit into the behavior of Alex and his friends, who react to calamity as only cartoon characters could, jumping yards straight up in the air or literally getting bent out of shape.

The directors say that casting a slew of comedy stars who had also been directors and writers - such as Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith, David Schwimmer and Sacha Baron Cohen - helped them sustain the lunacy through the painstaking and often isolating months of production. (Breaking with animation tradition, they did get Rock and Stiller together in the recording room for the plane-crash session.) McGrath himself plays the chief penguin commando, Skipper. He sees (and voices) that intrepid aquatic bird as a combination of "Robert Stack, Charlton Heston and Peter Graves, in those roles where they're always barking out orders." McGrath enumerates several keys to these penguins' peculiar charm. "They are psychotic: They treat everything as a life-or-death drama. The universe has somehow aligned itself to let them do things they shouldn't be able to do, like jump on a keyboard and get command of a ship. They have no idea they're 12 inches tall and penguins."

For Darnell, "The penguins are the best for us because they're the dessert of the movie. They're pure comedy: They don't have to support the story, while the other characters do. They're the comic relief."

That sums up the multilayered pleasures of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. Its makers are so profligate with their gifts, they provide "comic relief" in a comedy.

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