Is the Madagascar franchise on life support?

Before I start the review of the sequel, let me go back and give a very quick, one paragraph review of the first Madagascar since I wasn’t doing this back in 2005. In short, I liked it a lot. Unlike a lot of critics I loved the angular stylistic character designs. The voice acting was very good and really fit the characters. The humor was great. Even the pop culture references, which I usually hate in animated features, really worked here. I think that had to do with the characters being out of place New Yorkers, rather than fairy tale creatures or fish, where it didn’t work nearly as well. And the story was pretty good too. The main issue was something you don’t hear too often in a review — it was a little too short. It needed about 5-10 more minutes after setting up the Alex-as-a-predator story line before immediately and abruptly starting the resolution. Overall, I think it is one of the most enjoyable and re-watchable of all of DreamWorks’ films. Too bad the sequel tosses most of these positive aspects out the window.

We pick up soon after the first movie ends as the crew says their good-byes and is off to New York in plane wreckage “fixed” by the penguins. They obviously don’t get far and crash land on the African continent. Alex discovers his long lost parents, Marty finds he may not be as unique as he always believed, Gloria gets a man, and Melman copes with his impending doom and the one thing he wants to do before he goes. Our side characters are here as well. The penguins try to find a new way home, Julien tries to get his new subjects to follow him, and even the old New York woman gets some screen time as she tries to lead lost tourists after their vehicles are commandeered by the penguins. And all that is fit into the 89 minute run time.

The first problem with the film may be obvious just from my description. There are too many story lines competing for a limited amount of film time. The first movie basically had one main story line and everything else was in service to that. The sequel tries to give every character their own plot. Because of this, none of the stories get any amount of depth. Every few minutes we cut to a different character to see what they’re up to, get a minimal amount of development consisting of mostly cliched plot, then we’re taking off to somewhere else to repeat the process all over. And worse, it turns out that the side characters get the best stories as theirs are more similar to the style of the first movie. The writers really did a disservice to the characters in trying to give everyone a minor plot point, rather than coming up with one plot they could work around together.

“Hoover Dam! We’re in a bad sequel! Abort! Dive! Dive! Dive!”

But let’s be serious for a second. You don’t come to a Madagascar movie for plot — you come for the laughs. Unfortunately that department comes up lacking too. Perhaps taking to heart the criticism from some about the first film that there was no moral or that the story was too superficial, here they go too far in the other direction. And it starts from the first scene where Alex is torn apart form his family as a baby. The whole tone of the film is a little more glum from that opening and it never really picks up much. the writers have tried to put some emotional punch into this outing but because of the hectic multi-story lined plot, serious issues are just hinted at and glossed over. Jokes are not nearly as fast and furious as they were in the first film, regulated for the most part to the penguins, Julien, and the old lady. Even the pop culture references have been cut back, which while not necessarily a bad thing is a bit of a letdown after all the other disappointing aspects of the film.

There are just a few new characters in the film. And the character designs and voices chosen for them are not nearly as interesting as the ones created for the first film. Yes, the designs fit into the world, but they are mainly cookie cutter copies rather than bold new originals. The exception here is Moto Moto, a male hippopotamus who has a hilarious look that not only fits the character but is different without breaking too far out of the mold. Vocals are in the same vein as the designs: serviceable. Alex’s father, Zuba, voiced by the late Bernie Mac, is pretty good but is lacking much of an emotional range necessitated by his story line. Sherri Shepherd as Alex’s mother is unmemorable. And Alec Balwin as Makunga is just a bad fit. Once again it is Moto Moto that shines in a relatively small role voiced by

The inevitable sequel to the sequel is undoubtably already in the works. But unless they can figure out what made the first film work the Madagascar franchise might become an endangered species.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
DreamWorks Animation
November 7, 2008
89 minutes
Rated PG
directed by Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath