DreamWorks Animation (June 8 2012), DreamWorks Home Entertainment (October 16 2012), Blu-ray plus DVD with Digital Copy, 93 mins plus supplements, 1080p high-definition 1.78:1 widescreen, Dolby True-HD 7.1, Rated PG, Retail: $39.99


The animals are back for thirds, this time escaping Africa and falling in with a European circus outfit that sees a return of color and big laughs to the series.

The Sweatbox Review:

I wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of DreamWorks Animation’s original Madagascar, but it contained an outrageous design and color style approach and enough laughs to keep me smiling before the jokes started to become old. Visually the movie was pretty amazing, comedically its mix of star voices made up an appealing odd bunch of misfits and, although it was largely a broad, commercial vehicle that poked a bit of fun at the kinds of cute animal pictures competitor Disney is known for (as well as drawing some, um, “inspiration” from a cancelled Disney project Wild Life and seemingly a certain Broadway musical Lion design), it provided for a very fun time for younger and older audiences.

Fast forward to Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (see what they tried to do there?), which saw the movie become a franchise – and all sense of fun and wit evaporate. Originally given the much more knowing subtitle of The Crate Escape, the sequel’s problems started with its title: Madagascar is on the African continent, so escaping to Africa was a bit of a dumb detail as they were essentially already there. Added to this was that the filmmakers seemed to think they were tied to an African setting to retain the Madagascar reference of the title, which lead to a long and laborious film bogged down in self-referential gloom surprising for an animated kids movie, and not in a good way!

Escape 2 Africa sucked any life out of its vocal performances too, by simply having them repeat their same shtick from the first movie, something that the likes of Ben Stiller (as Alex the lion) seemed all too happy to do for that movie and others in his career around that time (it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence, to me, that his box-office fortunes took a tumble after too many characters came off as being essentially the same one in many a Stiller comedy). More lazily, the second Madagascar just warmed up and repeated more that audiences liked of the first, without giving them anything new.

You liked the little old granny who slapped the big lion around? Great, you got more of that. Howsabout the funny lemur king voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen, an amusing side character in the first film? Well, you got a lot more of that – too much, in fact, to the point that I actively dislike Madagascar 2 quite intently. However, trilogies have a habit of coming along in threes (haha), and it’s often been said that a third film in any such series often returns to the themes and spirit of the original, even subconsciously, so as to reflect a classic three-act structure. When one thinks about it, it can’t be missed that the endings to The Godfather, Star Wars and Back To The Future, to pick three, all reflect their original (pre-sequelized) first films.

However bad a second film in a trilogy can get it wrong in trying to either bring us more of the same or going the other way in attempting something new (and, often, not in keeping with an original’s charm), a third film usually sets things right, unless it’s the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy or Men In Black! Thankfully Madagascar 3 gets things just about right, returning to the wild and wacky fun of the original while adding some new ingredients that prove to bring a fresh perspective to the series – if only the second film had offered such a new take on the material the entire franchise might have a better name for itself.

Dispensing with the need to set things in, around or destined for the titular location within its first few minutes (thus legitimizing the Madagascar of the title but not becoming beholden to it), Europe’s Most Wanted’s best trick is again hinted at in its moniker, shipping the animals off on another untamed adventure, this time in some of Europe’s glossiest cities. There’s a little recalling of Pixar’s abysmal Cars 2 in some of these scenes, although that’s to be expected given that both films are essentially road movies – in one case quite literally – set across various European landscapes, but the cast of characters in Madagascar 3 easily beats out Mater, McQueen and company.

The film’s crew do too: at least DreamWorks Animation hasn’t been lazy in adopting the same touristy locations as the Cars sequel, and even when the action takes place in the same country or city, such as London, for instance, it never feels as if we’re simply watching DreamWorks’ answer to a Pixar Euro-set story, as some other of the historic competition from both studios have sometimes felt. What helps Europe’s Most Wanted break from the norm, too, is a wildly abandoned sense of the absurd. The first film’s most memorable moments were those that were quietly (and not so quietly) surreal: the animals on the subway, or Marty’s slow-mo dreams of Africa, for instance, and here they return with aplomb.

The action kicks off almost right away: with the Madagascar of the title quickly referenced and discarded within the first few minutes, we’re straight into the new plot, which sees obsessive and impossibly skilled Captain Dubois of Monte Carlo’s Animal Control organization hot on the trail of New York Public Zoo’s finest. The totally unfeasible feats she pulls off in chasing the escaping animals immediately indicates that Madagascar 3 is a cartoon, pure and simple, and an extremely entertaining return to what made the first film so enjoyable. I wasn’t such a fan of how quick (in one shot!) the animals made it away from Africa to Monte Carlo: if it was just a “hop, skip and a swim away” then why didn’t they do that in the second movie and save us the boredom of that film!?

It’s not such a minor point that can be swept aside, but the movie doesn’t even deal with it, simply cutting from Africa to the animals rising from the water in Monte Carlo’s harbor via a fade out to allow the main title to be displayed. Ho-hum, if this is the biggest objection one could have to this movie then so be it – by no means making any kind of sense, at least we don’t have to suffer any more African-set introspective shenanigans this time around, and Europe’s Most Wanted is all the better for it! From a casino-set penguin extraction attempt to the animals’ meeting a new bunch of circus friends, directors Eric Darnell, Conrad Vernon and Tom McGrath display a firm grip on the material (co-written by Darnell) and keep things moving at a breathless but not breakneck pace.

Madagascar 3 builds on what made the first film so much fun but holds back in places so that the bigger scenes can play as they should: the introduction of the circus animals, for instance, offers up some delicate characterization that could easily have been missing but serves to deliver us some welcome and fully formed new personalities. As Dubois, Frances McDormand doesn’t really have too much to do other that grunt and groan as her character leaps and jumps around all over the place, getting a chance to be a real meanie towards the end, but it’s clear she relishes her dialogue (and an over the top Edith Piaf moment!) and, with a distinct visual appearance, really helps the character make an impact.

Also terrific is newcomer to the series Martin Short, pulling one of his crazy accents out of the bag as Stafano the sea lion, surprisingly one of the most nuanced personalities in the entire movie, and his character’s animation is absolutely superb, with wonderful twitches and performance touches that make it possibly the best I’ve yet seen in a DreamWorks movie. In fact, the whole film is impressive visually, from the scale of the Monte Carlo chase to the New York Zoo showdown, where a final payoff suggests that they may be more Madagascars to come. Certainly the movie’s box-office suggests there is still life in the franchise, although I hope future instalments can keep up with the fresh nature Europe’s Most Wanted brings to the party.

Is This Thing Loaded?

This being a DreamWorks title, and therefore one of only a couple of releases on home video from the studio each year, you can’t really blame them for using the opportunity to promote their other projects and, in a way, I look forward to each new DWs release as it’s a pretty nice way to keep up with what else the company is up to across its ever-expanding slate. Opening the disc are previews for the animated epic Rise Of The Guardians, the How To Train Your Dragon spin-off Cartoon Network series Riders Of Berk and a How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular touring show, and Kung Fu Panda Holiday Special on disc.

There’s a little more promotion in a selection of previews for various DWs franchises, but the further Sneak Peek is saved for more on the How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular show, with Hiccup actor Riley Miner offering a look at some of the amazing visuals and technology that have gone into developing the original movie into a world-touring arena presentation. As well as comparing moments to the movie, this generous 20-minute program is obviously promotional in nature but swerves feeling like an extended commercial, offering enough interest, especially in the second half, in the actual nuts and bolts of putting something on this scale together.

Under the High Flying Fun banner, you’ll find a very pleasing selection of bonus features that cover the production more than adequately. First up, and most disposable, is a Blu-ray exclusive game Get Them To The Train: basically a point, click and shoot offering, it promises a bit (there seems to be over an hour’s worth of connected video material) but delivers nothing (once three animals are on the train the game finishes without anything else happening). Much better are a trio of Commentary options with the film’s three directors: there’s a standard Audio Commentary track that plays as the movie unspools, an on-screen Trivia Track that posts little tidbits of production and location information throughout, and – best of all – The Animators’ Corner picture-in-picture option.

With an intro from Darnell, Vernon and McGrath, this is a great return to the kind of Cine-Explore presentation that Disney initially offered on their Blu-rays but that have missing of late. DreamWorks has always supported this kind of behind the scenes presentation and it’s good to see them continue here: this is a fully edited mix of commentary type remarks from the directors, cut in with everything from story sketches to initial renders, concept art and video snippets from other members of the cast and crew, creating a well-rounded visual record of the movie’s production. There is a little overlap between the three different track options, from info to actual reuses of audio, but this is how it should be done: an exemplary exploration of a major studio animated feature’s production. Nice!

Big Top Cast (13:38) spends some time in the recording booth chatting with the directors and the star vocalists, going over their roles and various approaches in typical fluffy fashion, but it’s cool to see more of the production process. Three Deleted Scenes (6:20) offer up a bunch of moments that were cut before they made it to final animation: two extra scenes for Dubois could have been fun, but nothing here should have made the cut. Mad Music Mash-Up mixes Julien and Mary’s signature songs for what is nothing more than a fast-cut one-minute TV spot, although it’s fun enough and offers at least one element of the film’s promotional campaign.

Covering more of the production side of things is a Ringmasters featurette (15:27), which takes us through the doors of DreamWorks Animation’s facilities in Richmond and Glendale to catch the directors working behind-the-scenes during an average day on Madagascar 3. It’s naturally interesting stuff, even if some of it seems a little staged, but after seeing so much of Pixar on their DVDs it’s finally nice to be able to “tour” another of the majors studios. Lastly, the original big four voice cast members have the final word in a Madagascar 3 Roundtable discussion, which is brief at under four minutes but does reveal less of a fluffy take on the way the actors tackle animated work as opposed to live-action.

On the enclosed DVD, one expects to find the standard definition edition of the movie and its Digital Copy (as well as Big Top Cast, Deleted Scenes and the Filmmakers Commentary), but less expected and very welcome is a series of DVD-ROM weblinks that open up Madagascar 3’s circus world with a series of PDF pages that include a Marty wig cutout, coloring sheets, games and a printable “life-size” six foot by four foot poster that uses a whopping 45 A4 sheets but could be pretty cool. When other studios have taken to removing content from their DVD combos, it’s nice to see DreamWorks still adds little extras like these to its titles.

Case Study:

Offered in around three different choices (including regular DVD and 3D options), it’s the standard Blu-ray Disc edition that will probably appeal to most, especially given that kids may want an included (in initial units at least) replica of Marty’s Rainbow Wig, sportingly adorned in the services of testing the merchandise by yours truly on the right!

What’s neat is that it comes in its own (packed) Blu-ray sized box and doesn’t seem to have impacted the sales price, meaning that although Marty only really wears the thing for a couple of moments in the movie itself, it makes for a fun extra that your kids can share, or end up fighting over, and adds to the overall value.

The discs themselves come in a regular BD case with a subtly different slipcase that matches other recent DreamWorks releases with their yellow-borders. The pamphlet inside promotes more Dragons, games and the Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted Digital Copy and UltraViolet streaming option.

Even though the slipcase isn’t glossy or embossed, the artwork does a nice job of promoting the circus atmosphere and the fun promised inside, although one image on the reverse is awfully close to being a remnant of Escape 2 Africa’s poster, and it’s strange to find an UltraViolet sticker on the back of a cover, but it’s a good-looking package.

Ink And Paint:

Unsurprisingly, Madagascar 3 makes its debut on Blu-ray Disc in a spotless digital HD transfer that can’t be faulted. Several moments make for great demo material, not least the opening chase through Monte Carlo, and even though we’re not reviewing the also-available 3D version here it’s hard to see how the depth of this image could be bettered. Of course, 3D would add some perspective, but only as far as I could tell to a handful of specifically set-up and obvious shots, though there’s plenty of room for the filmmakers to have some fun with the medium and the bright colors should mean the images stay reasonably sharp in that format. Nevertheless, whichever way you watch, Madagascar 3 looks excellent.

Scratch Tracks:

Although DTS seems to have surpassed Dolby’s technologies as far as Blu-ray is concerned, some studios still prefer to mix in the traditional digital surround format and here we’re offered a pounding Dolby True-HD track for Madagascar 3. I’ve not had too much experience with comparing the differences between both flavors of audio, but I couldn’t make a distinction in this case from what a DTS track might have offered, the Dolby sound here being exceptionally clean and, when it needs to be, riotously rich and full. Again, the early chase scene sets a good benchmark as a strong home theatre demo that should shake the room; English, French and Spanish dubs and subs are all optional.

Final Cut:

With less time spent indulging the penguins and lemurs and more focus on the original animal foursome and their new circus friends, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted makes for typically loud and commercial contemporary animated feature filmmaking but does so extremely well. Fans of those characters shouldn’t think they’re a no-show, however: there is plenty of time for the penguins to make their various marks and often King Julien has the best throwaway lines, but the whole enterprise seems to have been put together with more thought to its development than the second film, perhaps as a result of the poor notices that film received. This is a slick endeavor with some very nice touches, providing some suitably silly family fun and bringing back a cartoon aspect that’s been missing in some computer animation films of late. Dare I say it’s the best of the three? Quite possibly: it’s certainly one of the most entertaining shows in town.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?