"Madagascar" is a classical gas. It's a good-humored, pleasant confection that has all kinds of relaxed fun bringing computer-animated savvy to the old-fashioned world of Looney Tunes cartoons.
Though the slapstick antics of "Madagascar's" quartet of animal friends do not break any new ground, that doesn't stop them from being continually amusing. As directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, this film makes the most of the unfettered visual imagination its animators bring to the screen.
"Madagascar" also benefits from not having any heavy moral to impart or life lesson to teach. It simply wants you to crack a smile, and with the expert voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith it has no trouble managing that.
In some ways "Madagascar" is a spiritual descendant of another kind of animated cartoon, clay animation wizard Nick Park's 1990 Oscar-winning "Creature Comforts," which had zoo animals talking feelingly about their lot in life. This film also begins in a zoo, albeit one distinctly out of the ordinary.
That would be New York's Central Park establishment, which the film conceives as a kind of luxury spa that caters to its inhabitants' every whim, from heat lamps and blow dryers to gourmet meals. After years of this kind of pampering, it's not surprising the animals have lost whatever survival skills they once had.
Four amigos are the focus of our attention in this urban enclave. Alex the Lion (Stiller) is the zoo's Mr. Showbiz, a self-centered performer whose best friend is the more introspective Marty the Zebra (Rock). Melman the Giraffe (Schwimmer) is a certified hypochondriac who makes jokes about his health plan, and Gloria the Hippo (Pinkett Smith) is an easygoing type who doesn't hesitate to throw her weight around when it's necessary.
Of the quartet, only Marty is restless. He hates to be interrupted when he dreams of wide-open spaces ("When the zebra's in the zone, leave him alone") and wonders if it would be possible to get to a place he's only heard about: "the wild."
Also in the zoo and not averse to causing trouble is a quartet of penguins, cleverly presented as an elite commando unit determined to break out of the heavily fortified prison camp they consider Central Park to be.
A series of (what else but) misadventures eventually results in the animals being shipped out to an animal preserve in Kenya. But more penguin shenanigans cause the crates with the four pals to wash up on the coast of Madagascar, -- an island with little in common with Manhattan where the bulk of the film takes place.
As quintessential New Yorkers, the animals have a comically tough time adapting to the wild, and they also have to deal with the island's other inhabitants: a tribe of wild and crazy lemurs, the original party animals. Head of the tribe is the self-important King Julien XIII, voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen. An actor best known as the inimitable Ali G, Baron Cohen nearly steals the picture with his unplaceable lemurese accent.
Though things get a bit serious when Alex threatens to turn native, "Madagascar" keeps things loose and funny throughout. There are visual gags, musical jokes keyed to songs like "Stayin' Alive" and the "Hawaii Five-O" theme, and clever lines from screenwriters Mark Burton & Billy Frolick and Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath.
If this film does have a moral, it's that no one should give up on their friends. Maybe that's not such a bad lesson after all.
MPAA rating: PG for mild language, crude humor and some thematic elements
A DreamWorks Animation SKG presentation. Directors Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath. Producer Mireille Soria. Screenplay by Mark Burton & Billy Frolick and Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath. Editor H. Lee Peterson. Music Hans Zimmer. Production designer Kendal Cronkite-Shaindlin. Visual effects supervisor Philippe Gluckman. Art director Shannon Jefferies. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.