So, like a clockwork plague, the year's second DreamWorks Animation feature has stumbled into theaters, and while this summer's Kung Fu Panda was a shockingly decent effort for the typically underwhelming studio, I'm sad but totally unsurprised to announce that the resolutely unneeded sequel Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is not. Though it is, to be fair, somewhat better than Madagascar, a film which it is mainly content to clone shamelessly.
For one, it fixes the biggest problem with the first film's plot, namely the lack thereof. In Madagascar, the narrative was really nothing more than a skeleton for a series of fitfully amusing gags, with virtually nothing in the way of conflict or drama to give the proceedings any kind of forward momentum. This time, our four New York zoo animal friends - Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippopotamus (Jada Pinkett Smith), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) - actually have recognisable problems to solve, and the result is a film that doesn't seem nearly so grinding as the first: for example, there is no equivalent to Madagascar's endless opening sequence in New York, where nothing happens for nearly thirty minutes.
The sequel starts shortly after the end of the preceding film, with our heroes taking off in a rickety old plane from the lemur kingdom on Madagascar, only to crash-land in an African wildlife reserve. This just happens to be the same place where Alex was abducted from in his youth (a pre-title sequence that seems carefully designed to traumatise the living hell out of young children), and his reunification with his father Zuba (the late Bernie Mac, in a very regrettable swan song) is a bit strained by the elder lion's disdain for the singin' and dancin' lifestyle of a show-cat in the big city. The other three each get a mini-drama in which they must deal with seeing other animals of their kind; but the chief action revolves around the Daddy Issue plot, in which Alex must prove that he is a proper lion, no matter what. Hey, it's still an improvement, clichés and all - and it must be noted, those parts of the sequel which don't steal from Madagascar are quite content to steal from a host of other, better movies, with The Lion King being a particularly obvious influence.
Generally speaking, the interesting and funniest parts of this film are exactly the same parts that were interesting and funny in the original, and returning directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath apparently knew that, because those things are given greater weight here than before: the crazed military penguins led by the McGrath-voiced Skipper (who get a bit more screentime), and the unhinged lemur king Julien, voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen (who gets a whole lot more screentime, possibly because Cohen has become a much more valuable commodity since 2005). The penguin scenes in particular are of such a remarkably higher quality than everything else in the film, that I found myself desperately wishing that they'd get their own feature: that might even be enough for DreamWorks to mount its first genuine threat to Pixar's hegemony.
Otherwise, it's mostly routine pablum for the kiddies with out-of-place pop-culture references for bored parents. You know, a day at the office for these films. Either you find it fun and diverting (more power to you), or like me, you'd rather claw your flesh out than sit through another scene of CGI critters dancing along to pop and rap numbers. Though I'd be remiss in pointing out that one of the requisite pop numbers actually works fantastically, and quelle surprise it involves the penguins; they pop in a Boston eight track when they jack a safari jeep, and "More Than a Feeling" blares out as they try to run over the old lady with the Borscht Belt shtick from the first film (whose increased presence in this movie, by the way, is unquestionably its greatest flaw).
There is the matter of the film's animation to address; and in that respect, Escape 2 Africa represents the new high bar for the studio, even after Kung Fu Panda proved they could put together a mostly attractive film. As much as that film was a leap over everything DreamWorks had done previously, this one is a bigger leap still: there are backgrounds, particularly those involving water, that come terrifyingly close to photo-realism, and broadly speaking the landscapes look as beautiful as any "real" Africa-set picture could hope for. It probably helps that the film boasts Guillermo Navarro as a visual consultant; between this and Pixar's WALL-E, which had Roger Deakins filling the same role, 2008 has unexpectedly become the year that superstar cinematographers began telling computer animators how to do their jobs. Which is, beyond question, an enheartening notion.
This is all counterbalanced somewhat by the character design, which is appallingly ugly: though DreamWorks has always had some noticable problems in this area, the Madagascar pictures, to my mind, take the cake for having the least visually appealing stars of any of their films. The incidental details are improved (Alex's main looks more like real hair, the eyes are a bit less glassy - always DreamWorks's Achilles heel), but in the main these are still characters that are somewhat more disgusting than charming. Particuarly poor Melman, whose giant eyes and melty face wouldn't look out of place in a CGI zombie movie.
All things considered, it could be worse. We'll always have those fantastic penguins, and if the kids want to eat up the predigested swill that DreamWorks serves up for them, this is not something that I can personally fix, and with my third review of an underachieving children's movie in five weeks, I'm starting to sound a bit like a broken record with all my whinging about "back in my day" and "what, isn't The Wizard of Oz good enough for these kids today?" All things considered, Escape 2 Africa isn't horrible: it has a generally smarter range of jokes than the studio usually offers, even if most of it is pitched way under the radar (I did very much enjoy the way that they kept dancing around Alex's inability to recognise Marty amongst the zebras: "You all look the same". Yes, white comic actor, tell that Chris Rock one more time). That's faint praise at best, and I am sad that "this movie only sucks a little bit" is enough to speed it into the top third of DreamWorks animated features, but this is the world we live in now. Hey, look what's coming out on DVD in a week!