The first “Madagascar” wasn’t a great computer-animated movie, but the picture, about a bunch of New York zoo animals that are expelled from the Big Apple to Africa but wind up on the title island instead, was appreciably better than many of the others that were being made at the time, and that was enough. This sequel looks marvelous—the animation really is superb—but it’s not even up to the standard of the initial installment in any other significant respect.
The script takes off with an attempt by the animals to get back to New York using the wreckage of an old airplane that they launch with a giant slingshot. Unfortunately, the plane conks out over Africa. Happily, it crashes right beside the wildlife refuge that Alex the Lion, voiced by Ben Stiller, was stolen from by poachers years earlier. There he finds his father Zuba (Bernie Mac) and mother (Sherri Shepherd) overjoyed at his return. On the other hand, Zuba’s old rival in the pack, Makunga (Alec Baldwin), is ready to sabotage the boy and expel both him and his parents in order to seize power himself.
Meanwhile Alex’s three chums find happiness of a sort, too—the exuberant zebra Marty (Chris Rock) with a huge herd of others of his kind, hypochondriac giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) by being accepted as the new witch doctor, and hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) through romance with camp heartthrob Moto Moto (will.i.am). All will be called into service along with Alex and Zuba when the preserve is threatened by a cutoff of its water supply.
The big problem with “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” is one it shares with the first picture—the fact that the lead quartet isn’t particularly amusing. Here the weakness is exacerbated by the Alex-Zuba-Makunga scenario, which frankly comes off like a tepid imitation of “The Lion King.” In earlier outings, the DreamWorks unit has sent up Disney material with sharpness and skill, but in this case the mimicry is pretty flat (with Baldwin’s Makunga a pale reflection of Jeremy Irons’s Scar), especially because Stiller makes an awfully pallid hero. The stuff dealing his three pals is soft too, with Gloria’s plotline particularly weak. And the “adventure” that comes to the fore in the latter reels, which brings back Nana (Elisa Gabrielli), the hard-bitten old lady who was a minor figure in the first picture (she helped recapture the animals when they escaped from the zoo, and here becomes the leader of a bunch of vacationers who’ve become stranded in the wild, and the person responsible for damming the source of the preserve’s water), is a desperate attempt to generate a big, action-packed finish. (It’s nice to see a character that does a nod to old Granny from the “Tweety Pie” cartoons, but as a homage it falls far short of the original.)
“Magadascar” does have one positive element in the reappearance of the supporting characters who enlivened the initial film—in particular oddball lemur King Julien, voiced once more with a wonderful sense of the ridiculous by Sacha Baron Cohen, along with his factotum Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer) and pint-sized camp follower Mort (Andy Richter), and the gang of no-nonsense penguins led by the supremely officious Skipper (Tom McGrath). The fact that these characters are the most memorable ones in the series is clear from the trailers, which showcase them to the near-exclusion of the supposed “stars,” and they do in fact have most of the best lines and bits of business here. But they’re still on the sidelines, insofar as screen time is concerned. That may be wise, since it’s hard to imagine that a feature in which they were at center stage would be sustainable. But they do tend to make Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria—as well as Zuba, Makunga and the rest of the newbies—seem terribly bland by comparison.
And basically that’s what’s wrong with “Madagascar 2”—the best elements are around the edges, and the central story is pretty much a dud. It’s probably lively enough to keep kids brought up on the original amused, and there are bits and pieces that should bring a chuckle to their elders. But overall it’s just kind of middling as far as these computer-animated blockbusters are concerned.