We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
It wouldn’t have been the ’80s without the Great Coke–Pepsi Cola War, a struggle so titanic that at least one pop star risked cranial immolation for the cause. And it wouldn’t be whatever we’re calling the ’00s without the clash between Pixar Animation Studios (the Toy Storys, Finding Nemo) and DreamWorks Animation SKG (the Shreks, Shark Tale). The latest salvo in the scramble for animation domination is DreamWorks’ Madagascar, a pleasant but less than inspiring attempt to capture the hearts and wallets of family filmgoers. The film is the story of four animal friends at the Central Park Zoo—Alex the Lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer), and Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett-Smith)—who, through a series of mishaps, end up marooned on the relatively rustic island nation of Madagascar. There, the pampered and homesick New Yorkers must eke out an existence in the wild without the help of beneficent zookeepers or adoring fans. (Things turn especially hairy when a hungry Alex, craving the steaks that were his dietary mainstay, answers his long-buried primal instincts and turns his carnivorous attention on his erstwhile buddies.) Directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, who also co-wrote with Mark Burton and Billy Frolick, this fauna-out-of-water story has plenty going for it—most notably the way it makes both the urban-sophisticate protagonists and their extended country family the butt of its many jokes. (The former, for example, are dubbed “the New York Giants” by some of the latter—in this case, a band of native lemurs.) The film also benefits from art director Shannon Jeffries’ generally relaxed brand of animation, which, though computer-generated, feels goofier and less animatronic than much of its competition. (Think more Looney Tunes than Final Fantasy.) And, of course, the flick delivers the requisite Colorful Band of Supporting Characters Who Steal the Show, led by the always show-stealing Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G) as the lemur king, Julien. Where Madagascar falls short, however, is in creating characters compelling enough to lift the story from cartoon to, well, ’00s-style animated feature. There is no Simba, Shrek, or Nemo here—just a bunch of wacky animals doing their various wacky-animal things and tossing off the occasional good one-liner (Melman: “Nature! Get it off!”). In other words: It’s fizzy enough, but it’s not about to make anyone set his hair on fire. —Mario Correa