Sunday, June 10, 2012

Three-Ring Boredom: MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE'S MOST WANTED

What is there to say about Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted? At this point you already know if you like this sort of thing. It’s the latest in Dreamworks Animation’s series about animals that, in the original film, went from a zoo in New York City to the wilds of Madagascar, then into deepest Africa in the sequel. Now, the group of wacky creatures (blandly voiced by Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, and Jada Pinkett Smith) is on the move again. Has there been a series of kids’ movies with a more aggressively uncharismatic ensemble of characters? I’ve never once cared about the lion, zebra, giraffe, and hippo that bumble around so dully in the protagonist roles. I couldn’t even tell you the first thing about their personalities. The lion’s vain, I guess? The giraffe’s kind of nervous quite a bit? That sounds about right. The point is, my affection for the series is awfully low. I walk in to the theater, the movie happens, and then I walk out. I don’t love them or hate them. They just are and they’re not for me. I can’t care about such generic cartoon critters.

No, all the fun characters – what few there are, that is – can be found around the margins. I like the reasonably silly penguins (funny enough to get their own spin-off cartoon series that ditches the dead weight of those lame leads) and an agreeably wacky vocal performance from Sacha Baron Cohen as a deluded lemur king. It’s with these characters that the movies threaten to break off into something altogether more enjoyable. In this movie the whole group is trying to get back to America, but have somehow ended up in Europe. They’re forced to join the circus to hide from a competently villainous new character, a seemingly indestructible French animal-control meanie, Captain DuBois (Frances McDormand in a thick, thick accent). It’s a good thing that the story clutters up with partially amusing distractions like DuBois, as well as a train full of circus critters like a gruff tiger (Bryan Cranston), a silly sea lion (Martin Short), and a nice leopard (Jessica Chastain). They’re not all that fleshed out, either, but at least the ensemble swells to take your mind off of the real leads.

The story here (cobbled together by series regular Eric Darnell and Noah Baumbach, of all people) is awfully dull and predictable, adhering to an undisguised and uncomplicated three-act structure that plods along like most low-functioning family films. It’s essentially a creaky tumble of colorful animation and wacky voices mixed in with grating pop culture references and obvious music cues. What helps it not be completely terrible is the way directors Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, and Conrad Vernon seem to push against the plot and just make things tumble over in free-form silliness from time to time. The actual jokes fall flatter than flat, but some sequences have meager visual whimsy. All of the best scenes, and there are some good ones, could be nice, wacky shorts in a Looney Tunes style. I liked when the lemur falls in love with a bear and together they ride the bear’s tricycle through Vatican City in a romantic montage set to “Con Te Partirò.” And it’s worth a chuckle when DuBois escapes from a grimy Italian prison by hiding inside a mattress. That’s not to mention the big opening sequence in which the animals are chased around Monte Carlo in a brisk and funny slapstick chase. And there are a couple of big circus setpieces that are pleasing neon 3D swirls. But, like usual, all of these highlights are mostly secondary to the unremarkable stories of the main characters.

I suppose people like these movies or else they wouldn’t be so profitable. I’m just not one of those people. This is a series that has always felt tired to me, right from the beginning. I went to this third installment not expecting much and got a little more than I expected anyways. There are fleeting moments of smile-worthy goofiness and plenty of objects thrust out through the fourth wall to take advantage of the 3D. I guess I liked this the best out of the Madagascars, even though that’s not saying much. I still don’t care much for these characters and the movie doesn’t even try to get the unconverted there. I couldn’t care less if they made it back to New York, but as long as the movie crashed through common sense and indulged it’s silliest side-characters’ antics, I could be distracted just enough not to care that I didn’t care. The instant the credits rolled, the movie began to leave my mind. There’s nothing wrong with these Madagascar movies that better jokes, better stories, and more memorable main characters couldn’t fix. 

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