The old “let’s put on a show” formula is resurrected for the third installment of DreamWorks’ “Madagascar” franchise, which began decently in 2005 but stumbled in its 2008 follow-up. “Europe’s Most Wanted” is loud, raucous and colorful, and it employs the 3D format explosively to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the audience’s faces. It also struggles to generate laughs from the sort of throwaway remarks that are usually the saving grace of such animated fare for adults. But its garishness and hyperactivity will probably be enough to keep the younger set amused, though it doesn’t even begin to approach the cross-generational appeal of the best Pixar fare.
The plot, cobbled together by Eric Darnell and Noah Baumbach, has the franchise’s star quartet—soft-spoken lion Alex (Ben Stiller), motor-mouth zebra Marty (Chris Rock), nervous giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer, whose hypochondria is minimized this time around) and happy hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett-Smith)—yearning to leave Africa, where they wound up in the last installment. (Oddly, all the other characters they met there seem to have disappeared.) Unfortunately, the ever-ambitious penguins led by Skipper (Tom McGrath) have flown off to Monte Carlo to bust the casino, leaving the others stranded; and they show no signs of coming back. So the quartet snorkle their way across the Mediterranean and cause a ruckus at the betting parlor that puts crazed animal-control superstar Chantal Dubois (Frances McDormand) on their tails.
“Madagascar 3” turns into a chain of breathless chases across Europe, during which the American critters hook up with a down-on-its-luck circus, claiming to be kindred spirits with its menagerie of performers, including pretty trapeze jaguar Gia (Jessica Chastain), sour-tempered Russian tiger Vasily (Bryan Cranston), who growls at the newcomers, and inept daredevil Stefano (Martin Short), an excitable sea otter. The plot trajectory involves Gia and Alex falling for each other, Vasily recovering the mojo he lost in a fiery accident years ago, and the circus showing the Cirque du Soleil pizzazz it needs to nab an offer of an American tour that will get our heroes back to their Central Park zoo—all while Dubois and her Clouseau-like Keystone Kops are in hot pursuit.
There’s also a weird subplot for lemur King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen), involving the wacky critter’s infatuation with a huge dancing bear—the only animal that doesn’t speak (probably a good thing, given that the voluble Julien hardly allows anybody to get a word in edgewise, but opening the movie to charges of urs-ism). The idea behind the oddball romance hopefully played better in the imagination than it does in the rather creepy result onscreen, which involves—among other things—the theft of the papal ring.
The whole shebang ends up back in the Big Apple, where Alex and his friends find that the zoo isn’t the paradise they remembered. Happily the circus folk overcome their unhappiness over the fact that their new buddies had lied to them about their background—the obligatory last-act obstacle to happy resolution—and come to their rescue. And Dubois, of course, gets her well-deserved comeuppance.
There’s lots of flashy action in the movie, all hyped up with extravagant 3D effects, and the animation is excellent—pretty much a foregone conclusion these days. Unfortunately, the lead quartet remains a pretty pallid group—as usual, it’s Julien, his underlings Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer) and Mort (Andy Richter), the monkeys and the penguins that provide most of the fun. And the new characters aren’t great either, with Gia bland, Vasily gruffly one-note and Martin’s jabbering Sebastian quickly growing tiresome. McDormand seems to relish her Cruella de Vil-with-a-French-accent turn, but it too gets old fast.
The result is an over-the-big-top picture that will probably please toddlers and franchise fans but suggests that the series has pretty much run its course.