You have to give them credit, whoever came up with idea of blowing regular ol’ movies up to IMAX size, because it has brought back to movie theaters the kind of spectacle we simply can’t reproduce at home, not even with plasma widescreens and blu-ray players. I saw Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa in IMAX: It. Is. Jaw-droppingly. Gorgeous. (Make that yellow light a green if you can see it in IMAX.) Kudos, too, of course, to the animators, who achieve the perfect balance between realistic representations of, you know, real things — there’s one sweeping vista of the African serengeti here that took my breath away — and stylized design: I love that the animals don’t look like people. They don’t look like real animals, but they retain the qualities that define them as a lion, a giraffe, a hippo, a zebra, a penguin, and so on.
Escape is so gorgeous, in fact, that it took me a while to realize that the heart and the soul of the first Madagascar, the aspect that made it so special, is missing here… no, not missing, but inverted to a degree that it almost negates the first film. Which is a genuine shame. As a pleasantly rowdy cartoon that diverts and amuses, one that will appeal to a wide audience without having to dumb itself down to do so — which is, it must be noted, a grand achievement on its own — Escape is a splendid success. It’s when held up to its predecessor that it feels a bit… lacking.
The returning writing and directing team of Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath have only themselves to blame: they set the bar high with the previous film, warping — and I do mean warping — a deeply touching valentine to New York City and to urban civilization on the whole with their tale of zoo animals suddenly lost in nature. Showoff performing lion Alex (the voice of Ben Stiller: Tropic Thunder, The Heartbreak Kid) and funnyman zebra Marty (the voice of Chris Rock: You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Bee Movie) could only be friends within the cultivated confines of city life, what with Alex being a carnivore and Marty being made of meat and all. Perhaps there’s no such thing as “natural” enemies, or that if there is, then maybe removing “nature” from the equation isn’t such a bad thing: that was one of the vital thematic points of Madagascar, which was of course a metaphoric heads-up for, you know, us human animals.
In Escape, though, Alex and Marty get even more lost in nature when they attempt to get home to New York… except it’s a far more idealized nature this time out, where, it seems, all the lions and all the zebras have no trouble getting along all the time. Their abortive flight from the island of Madagascar — more on that in a bit — gets them only as far as continental Africa and a protected wildlife preserve. They don’t realize it’s protected, of course, and there’s the tiniest thematic suggestion that this is yet another kind of zoo… but it’s the barest suggestion that is instantly forgotten. The lions here — including Alex’s parents — appear to have no trouble refraining from eating the local zebras, hippos, and giraffes. What they actually are eating is not a topic that is broached… which might be fine in another film that was not a sequel to one that didn’t shy away from the idea that what our bodies want and need is not always something that can be ignored, that our bodies shape us in ways that our minds may not like.
But never mind. Adventures in readjusting — again — to yet another alien environment for the city slicker critters ensue. I won’t spoil any of that: it’s all funny and sweet and clever. What rankles me in Escape is who is cast in the villain role here: a band of human tourists from, coincidentally enough, New York City, who are also lost in Africa and whose attempts to re-create their concept of what civilization is results in some very bad things happening to the animal denizens of the protected preserve. Basically, the humans are doing precisely the same thing Alex and Co. did in Madagascar, but they’re the bad guys for it now.
If I didn’t have the brilliant first movie to look back on, this reversal, well, wouldn’t be a reversal, and I could take it on its own terms even if I disagreed with the idea that “nature” is automatically better than “civilization.” But Darnell and McGrath have to cheat here, in light of what they espoused in that first film, by creating an idealized concept of “nature” in order to cast it as the preferable alternative to urban living.
But if you can turn your brain off — as I obviously can’t — there’s some wonderful stuff in Escape, too. Like a terrifying and simultaneously hilarious airplane sequence, as the penguins — oh yes, they’re back — make King Julien’s cargo-cult crashed-airplane temple just about airworthy again in order to fly the zoo gang home. (They fail, as I noted, but it’s a riot watching them fail.) And there’s King Julien (the voice of Sacha Baron Cohen: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan), a delightfully clueless yet impossibly arrogant little monster. Alec Baldwin’s (The Good Shepherd, Running with Scissors) minor villain, the lion Makunga — shades of The Lion King’s Scar — is a hoot. Good stuff. Funny stuff.
Look, it’s fine. It’s cute. The kids will love it. Their parents won’t be bored. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is a perfectly nice time at the flicks. But the unexpected and affecting wisdom of Madagascar is still ticking over in my head, three years later. And I’ve all but forgotten its sequel already.