Madagascar, and only a hair more for 2008's Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, so perhaps my opinion doesn't count; but I found Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted to be comfortably better than either of its predecessors, enough to make it the first of the trilogy that is actually worth watching on its own merits. Only just barely - this is not a Kung Fu Panda or How to Train Your Dragon that finds DreamWorks playing at the level of some, or even most, of its competitors - but barely worthwhile is still worthwhile, and this is the studio that crapped Shark Tale out into an innocent world.
The reason for this sudden uptick in quality is, I am pleased to report, not because longtime series directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, joined now by Conrad Vernon of Monsters vs. Aliens, have suddenly decided to try harder (it's not even because Darnell is joined in screenwriting duties by Noah Baumbach, of all staggeringly random people). The opposite, in fact: Europe's Most Wanted is a classic, even archetypal example of don't-give-a-shit-ism, in which the filmmakers have not only run out of things to say with the material, but have indeed slammed into the wall where they are well aware they don't have anything to say, and are there solely to make a commercial product for their corporate overseers, and that those overseers will have already made certain through marketing that the film will be a hit regardless of its content, and so there is no point in caring, and that is the exact point where freedom happens. Or soul-crushing depression and the death of all dreams, but it's freedom in the case of Europe's Most Wanted, which absolutely sacrifices story and character in favor of demented, anarchic cartoon logic where there are not dramatic stakes, nor physical laws, nor moral consequences, and everything takes place in an omnipresent now, the only thing mattering is that right in this moment, what's going on makes some kind of energetic, emotional "sense". There is little or no joy behind this, and that is why the film comes nowhere remotely close to, say, Tex Avery or the folks at UPA, whose abandonment of rationality was tied to an intoxicated ecstasy at the comic potential that abandonment permitted; but it is one hell of a lot weirder than just about any other animated feature film made by the big studios in a long time.
Nor does it take very long for the filmmakers' contempt for any sort of normality to sink in: the movie opens with the four lost animals from New York's Central Park Zoo - Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippopotamus (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) - still stuck in the African savannah where they were left at the end of a number of warm and fuzzy life lessons in the last picture, wondering when the hell the penguins that have accompanied them this far from the United States are going to get back from a gambling trip to Monte Carlo, so the whole lot of them can fly back home. Tired of waiting, the four heroes swim to Monaco. The entirety of their voyage, from making the decision to leave all the way up to poking their heads above water in the Bay of Monaco, takes place in the space of one cut, pointedly devoid of any explanation for what just happened. This in a movie franchise predicated on the difficulties of inter-continental travel. You can just about feel the filmmakers' dislike for the franchise wafting right off the screen, and I love them for that.
Anyway, the plot is a crazy quilt from there: the animals run afoul of Monaco's ace animal control officer, Capitaine Chantal DuBois (Francis McDormand), who pursues them with Ahab-like fixation of purpose as they hop aboard a circus train, against the wishes of a surly Russian tiger named Vitaly (Bryan Cranston), but to the great joy of leopard Gia (Jessica Chastain) and sea lion Stefano (Martin Short). In order to impress an American circus promoter planning to take in the show in London, the gang has to quickly turn the circus into an exciting, innovative spectacle, and not just the same old collection of tired animal tricks, and in so doing warm and fuzzy life lessons are learned. So, I mean, it is a coherent narrative. That's the one thing that nobody can take away from it. But the path it takes to coherence is a spectacularly crazy one, particularly in the extraordinary volume of physically impossible gags assigned to DuBois, or the big circus show that, when it finally premieres, simply does not even pretend to be anything other than a spectacle of CGI shapes and colors winding all around the screen in a manner that could not conceivably exist in the real world (an exceptionally beautiful sequence and shockingly abstract for the sort of film this is, ruined in that it is set to Katy Perry's "Firework" - DreamWorks will out).
What might be the most telling thing, though, is that the pre-established characters are tossed to the side so enthusiastically. Other than Alex, the three "leads" are kept on to fill in holes when the filmmakers run out of things to do with Vitaly and DuBois, who are far and away their new favorites; Sacha Baron Cohen's lemur king is given a frivolous subplot where he falls in love with a tricycling bear (this subplot includes a visit to the Pope, in line with the film's impeccable "why the hell not?" standards), and is the only other regular who really "matters" to the drama. Not that the drama itself matters very much; even the apparent resolution of the series' narrative - with plenty of room for a sequel, of course - is dispatched rather abruptly. Abruptness, in fact, is the chief characteristic of the film: moments go by exceedingly quickly, and there is a supremely dense amount of incident for a movie that doesn't even break 85 minutes before the credits start to roll.
It feels, unshakably, like the people involved were just throwing every idea they could come up with out there, not even to see if it stuck, but just because it was easier to commit to every notion rather than trying to editorialise and streamline (there is certainly enough in here, wedged together crudely enough, for two entirely distinct features). The results can't exactly be called exciting, since the pronounced lack of inspiration is always just off-screen, and the efforts to force learning and growin moments for the characters into all this brightly colored comic nonsense hurt really bad, enough that it's almost tempting to call it a parody of the form. But at the same time, it's a phenomenally busy movie, and if you can't make a decent movie through normal means, relying on non-stop distractions to keep the thing humming along isn't the worst plan B.
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