There was this print-ad campaign for a self-storage place that ran all over Manhattan a year or two ago: “Bad things happen when you leave the city” ran the tagline, and the photos that accompanied it featured things like a car wrapped around a telephone pole, or a tornado bearing down on a farmhouse. The unspoken idea was, “Look, don’t go and do something incredibly foolish like move to the dangerous suburbs just because you don’t have any room in your tiny apartment to store stuff — you can store your stuff at XYZ Storage without ever having to cross a bridge or brave a tunnel.” And that could be left unspoken because real New Yorkers have a perfectly normal aversion to anything outside the four boroughs*, except for the occasional brief weekend antiquing excursion, but even then, you’re still risking the rental-car-wrapped-round-the-pole thing.
“Ahhhh! Nature! It’s all over me! Get it off!” screams Melman the urban giraffe once he reaches the titular island in Madagascar, and New Yorkers will scream, too, with laughter, because we recognize ourselves in it, and everyone else will scream with laughter because they’ll think it’s making fun of our neuroses. But we like our neuroses just fine, thank you, and appreciate the tribute to them that Madagascar is.
But it’s not just about New Yorkers’ neuroses — this outrageously funny film is also a perceptive, touching valentine to city living and the peacemaking influence of close quarters. The stylized Central Park Zoo of the film is a veritable melting pot of predator and prey, carnivore and herbivore all living together in perfect harmony. Alex the lion (the voice of Ben Stiller: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story) and Marty the zebra (the voice of Chris Rock: The Longest Yard, Bad Company) are the best of friends, ebony-and-ivory and mane-attraction hopping over their all-but-useless fences to hang out in each other’s enclosures, and they never ever realize that this is not a “natural” way for a lion and a zebra to behave… until, of course, they find themselves outside the civilizing confines of New York.
(There are no lions or zebras in the real Central Park Zoo, by the way, but there are penguins, and they’re almost as funny as the escape-crazy gang of penguins here. There’s a mini film that could be called Penguin Run happening alongside Marty and Alex’s story; the last time I laughed so hard at birds, they were chickens.)
See, Marty has this urge to see “the wild,” by which he means merely the bit of Manhattan that’s on the other side of the zoo walls, with maybe a quick MetroNorth ride up to Connecticut — which is just about as wild as most Manhattanites ever want to get. And he grants himself this wish one night in what becomes one of the most hilarious appreciations of New York City I’ve ever seen on film: Marty strolls city streets where blasé New Yorkers barely give him a second glance, chats with a police horse in Times Square who sounds exactly like one of New York’s finest, and pops into Grand Central Terminal to see when the next train leaves for Connecticut. I gotta tell ya, as gorgeous as GCT is in real life, it’s somehow even more magnificent in CGI: the marble floor is shinier, the constellations painted on the ceiling more beautiful, the ambience somehow just more New York than the real thing — it’s as if one of the grandest places in New York got distilled down to the very essence of what makes it so grand and so New York. It brought tears to my eyes.
But Alex and pals Melman (the voice of David Schwimmer: Love and Sex, Apt Pupil) and Gloria the hippo (the voice of Jada Pinkett Smith: Collateral, The Matrix Revolutions) don’t want to lose their friend, so they go after him, which leads to all sorts of misunderstandings with the humans — much of which involves the enormous disconnect between what showoffy but harmless Alex thinks he’s saying to the army of cops who’ve come to round him up, and what the humans hear, which is of course nothing but loud, scary roaring. The humans don’t get that Alex has been thoroughly domesticated, thoroughly New York-ized — like many New Yorkers, he can’t sleep without the white noise of traffic and sirens. It’s merely the language barrier that keeps the humans from appreciating that Alex is just like them… another pointed commentary on the whole living-in-harmony thing, and why it sometimes doesn’t work.
Anyway, the gang gets themselves deported to Africa as punishment for their escapade, but, Cast Away style, they get stranded on the island of Madagascar along the way, a turn of events to which they react in proper New York manner: by reinventing civilization as best they can. Food is an issue, though: carnivore Alex finds himself growing increasingly desperate — and increasingly terrified — as he comes to realize that his best friend is made out of meat… as are the charming, pagan natives of the island, a gang of lemurs who party nonstop, led by the, heh, wildly funny Julien (the voice of Sacha Baron Cohen, better known as Ali G.).
The CGI is truly stunning — the clever contrast between the two islands, Manhattan all angular metal and stone and glass, and Madagascar so lush and verdant, makes the film one of the most visually delightfully and visually complex animated movies ever made; kudos to directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath. But it gets thoroughly upstaged by a story, by Mark Burton and Billy Frolick, that is immensely witty and deeply poignant, a fiercely humanistic one that, for all that it’s ostensibly about animals, is really about us, about coming to terms with our own aggressive natures and learning not to deny them but to find a way to channel them in such a way that we can live peacefully with our fellow zebras and lemurs– er, humans. The sly riffs on Disney musicals and the many smart-aleck pop-culture references make it go down easy, but this may well be the wisest, most philosophically sophisticated “kiddie” flick in ages.
*Staten Island doesn’t count; they crashed our party but aren’t fooling anyone, with all their tract housing and shocking lack of mass transit, and we’re all ignoring them politely but pointedly until they leave.