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Bright Little Island

I had my guard up when I began watching Madagascar, waiting for what I've come to expect from a DreamWorks film: spotlit movie-star voices, gratuitous quotations from pop culture, bogus sentiment, and, of course, at least one heavily underlined fart gag. After about ten minutes, though, I started to relax, only slightly anxious that I might get hit with a sucker punch before the film ended.

It never came. I was amazed. I can't imagine how Madagascar ever reached the screen. Has Jeffrey Katzenberg been in a coma?

Madagascar is the first DreamWorks feature cartoon, hand-drawn or computer-animated, that I've enjoyed, and I enjoyed it a lot. It's not a perfect film. It falters 45-50 minutes in, after its four animal leads—lion, zebra, hippo, and giraffe—reach the African island and it becomes clear that the cartoon Madagascar is simply not as interesting a place as the cartoon New York they've left behind. (The film's New York, particularly the nighttime scenes showing Fifth Avenue and Times Square, is a terrific advertisement for the genuine item.)

Madagascar DVDEric Darnell and Tom McGrath, Madagascar's co-directors and co-writers, may have been having too much fun in Manhattan to figure out a plausible way to get the animals onto a ship—their expulsion from the Central Park Zoo is rushed through with evident embarrassment on the filmmakers' part—and then into the jungle. But Madagascar merely stumbles, without turning slick and false. A cloud of sentimentality gathers (regrettably reinforced by Hans Zimmer's music) as Martin, the zebra, tries to talk his best buddy Alex, the lion, into leaving Madagascar with the others, but the skies clear quickly.

Madagascar begins with an amusing and, it turns out, tremendously fruitful conceit, that the zoo animals are as much New Yorkers—and about as far from being wild animals—as the people who come to look at them. The four leads inevitably call to mind the four leads in Seinfeld, but they're not analogues for Jerry and Elaine and the others; their oddities simply fit together in a similar way. These are characters who, like the Seinfeld gang, do not compensate for one another's weaknesses but simply prop one another up. (It would help if Gloria, the hippo, were a little odder; she seems to have been conceived too much as a sensible matron.)

It's easy to imagine another kind of DreamWorks film, one in which borrowings from Seinfeld were not only conspicuous but highlighted so we couldn't miss them. Earlier DreamWorks cartoons like the two Shreks and Shark Tale have been stuffed full of pop-culture references that serve no purpose other than to applaud the audience for its debased taste in music and movies and other contemporary detritus. Madagascar invokes other movies occasionally, but the movies tend to be older—Chariots of Fire, Planet of the Apes—and the quotations are always there as a joke, and not for their own sake. A squad of four penguins summons memories of prison-break movies and prisoner-of-war-camp TV shows, and the resemblance makes the penguins—devious little bastards who turn "cute and cuddly" on their leader's brusque command—that much funnier.

Madagascar's principal voices are those of stars of varying magnitude, but I found only Chris Rock's voice for the zebra disappointing. However well Rock delivers his lines, his voice—as insistently cartoon-ready as Robin Williams'—has simply been over-used in recent years. Given today's climate for animated films, when the importance of big-star voices is taken for granted and lazy performances by those stars seem inevitable, the generally high level of Madagascar's vocal acting is a pleasant surprise. While listening to Alex the lion speak, I never thought of Ben Stiller, but only of Alex himself.

The voices for some of the supporting characters seem to have been chosen, as Rock's apparently was, mostly for the value of the names; Cedric the Entertainer's voice is too straight for his lemur character. On the other hand, Sacha Baron Cohen (HBO's "Ali G") was an inspired choice for the lemur king, who sounds simultaneously cunning and deranged. We have all worked for such people, but rarely does such a voice so accurately mirror such a psyche.

There is, as always in today's cartoons, too much talk in Madagascar—we gotta hear those stars!—but the talk is not just funny (and it is, much of the time), it is also put to other good uses. For one thing, it is thanks largely to Stiller that Alex's neurotic self-regard is endearing rather than annoying. Alex as Stiller speaks for him is an egomaniac of the charming and innocent kind, a good-hearted fellow who wants to share his wonderful self with the world.

Stiller's vocal performance no doubt stimulated the character designers and animators, but in the end he got a lot of help from them, too. The DreamWorks people have in the past been obsessed with textures, with ultra-realistic hair and skin, but here they have come down on the side of much simpler—and potentially more expressive—designs for their characters. The animals that dominate the cast could be called "cartoonier" than has usually been the case for DreamWorks, but that would suggest that they resemble drawings transferred to three dimensions, and they look better than that. Alex is perhaps a shade too blocky and toy-like, but he, like all the characters, has been conceived three-dimensionally. It's difficult to imagine the zebra and hippo, in particular—defined in the one case by stripes and the other by bulk—existing so effectively as drawings.

The animation too differs from the DreamWorks norm. The publicity for the film suggests that its directors, Darnell and McGrath, took the old Warner Bros. and MGM cartoons as their model, and that they tried to bring to their animation not just the fast timing of those cartoons but also the stretch and squash that was integral to animation from the great short-cartoon studios.

The comedy timing in Madagascar is razor-sharp and one of the most impressive things about it. I suspect it's because the big gags work so well that Darnell and McGrath could introduce a great many lower-key comic moments that may elicit only chuckles but whose cumulative effect is to make the characters a little more real (and that much funnier in their big moments). I'm thinking in particular of a scene when Alex, terrified by the thought that he is alone on Madagascar, is running along the beach. He is panic-stricken, but not so panic-stricken that he doesn't yelp piteously whenever the cold ocean water laps a little against his feet. This is a cat who, like all cats but even more so, loves his comfort.

On the other hand, I didn't see much real elasticity in the animation, and certainly nothing to rival that in the old cartoons. There's significant distortion in some scenes, but little if anything in the way of true stretch and squash, the kind of animation that exaggerates the human body's natural elasticity for comic and expressive purposes. What I saw instead was quite a lot of what used to be called shooting from pose to pose—that is, a character moves from one pose to another with only a few frames in between. Much of the lingering mechanical quality of computer animation—which is what I find most troublesome about it—seems to originate in the way that the computer fills in the frames between poses, and, as best I can tell, Madagascar's directors have addressed that troublesome issue by emphasizing a kind of animation that reduces the need for such in-between frames.

The result often looks better than the puppet-like animation in earlier DreamWorks films, but I think Madagascar's directors have not so much expanded the boundaries of their medium as worked around some of its limitations. Not that there's anything wrong with that, to borrow a phrase from Seinfeld, but, as good as Madagascar is, there's no confusing it with The Incredibles, last year's breakthrough Pixar/Disney release written and directed by Brad Bird.

The Pixar film comes closer to incorporating real stretch and squash into the animation of its characters than Madagascar does. Moreover, those characters are human, stylized for computer animation's demands with a sophistication that, so far at least, DreamWorks's designers can't match. Because the character animation is stronger in The Incredibles, the characters can shoulder the weight of a more demanding story, one that is simultaneously a dazzling adventure and a comic exploration of family relationships.

Madagascar, by contrast, is simply funny, really funny, and fortunately, the filmmakers almost never forget that being really funny is all the justification a film needs for its existence. Like its predecessors at DreamWorks, and like contemporary Disney features, Madagascar had two directors, and I have to wonder if it would not be an even better film—a funnier film—if it had only one. I have no idea which one, Darnell or McGrath, but Pixar's example, and Bird's in particular, are surely powerful evidence that the multi-director setup no longer makes sense. Actually, it never did, even when Walt Disney himself was overseeing three directors on features that bore his name, but there is certainly no reason to adhere to it now.

One last question about Madagascar demands to be answered, and the answer is this: the film has a few rude gags, including one involving an anal thermometer, but as best I could tell, no character breaks wind on camera. I hope that revolutionary omission doesn't prove fatal at the box office.

[Posted May 20, 2005]