"These pillows are filled with baby birds."
I need to start this review by saying I'm not a huge fan of this series. Much like the Ice Age films, I'm not entirely sure, beyond obvious monetary reasons, how this became a series. These weren't necessarily characters that I felt could sustain a single film, let alone the multitude of films & spin-offs they've been in.
With all that being said, this is a thoroughly entertaining film, mainly because it's bizarre, surreal & off-key with reality. More floundering animated film series should be as ballsy as this one has turned out to be...
The film follows the quartet of characters from the first two films, Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) & Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett-Smith). They are still on their perpetual quest to return to their home at the Central Park Zoo in New York City, but the end of the last film found them stranded in Africa, which is where they start this film.
Their quest takes them first to Monte Carlo, where they are going to track down the penguins & monkeys who left them in Africa, and force them to fly them home. They run afoul of a French animal control officer, Captain DuBois (Frances McDormand, in full-on Marlene Dietrich mode) who wants their heads for her sizable trophy room. In an attempt to escape, they fake being circus animals to gain the trust of a traveling circus where they can stowaway. The monkeys use their winnings from Monte Carlo to purchase the circus, and thus the main plot is set in motion.
The circus has its fair share of "characters" like the none-too-bright Stefano the sea lion (Martin Short), the sweet Gia the jaguar (Jessica Chastain) & the non-trusting alpha male Vitaly the tiger (Bryan Cranston). The zoo animals try to win over the circus animals, whose upcoming show in London holds the key to getting them home to New York, all the while trying to evade DuBois.
The film has tons of surreal side stories, such as King Julien the lemur (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his love affair with a mute circus bear that has them visiting Vatican City and stealing a ring from the Pope, all set to "Por Ti Volare." Then there's the scene where DuBois rallies her men from a slumber in the hospital by singing "Je ne non regrette rien." It's bizarre, but pays off pretty great for a film that could have easily been another cheap cash-in the way the previous sequel was.
A lot of the credit for this has to go to co-writer Noah Baumbach. Not exactly known for his family-friendly scripts (with the possible exception of the similarly delirious Fantastic Mr. Fox,) he brings just enough oddity to the proceedings to make the film both entertaining & give it a reason to exist beyond brand recognition. The backstory for the circus characters is suitably bizarre, and will likely fly right over the heads of younger viewers, but parents will likely be tickled to death by some of the details.
Dreamworks animation has always lived in the shadow of both Pixar and the first Shrek film. Their films spent the better part of a decade floundering, and a case could be made that How to Train Your Dragon was the first film to come out of the studio since Shrek that lived up to its full potential. Their films since that time, including the fourth Shrek film, Megamind, and Puss in Boots have been thoroughly entertaining and strangely not as derivative as virtually all their films in between (Over the Hedge being the exception for me).
The Madagascar series didn't necessarily need to reach three films, but I'm glad that whomever greenlit the film had the good sense to just let the filmmakers go hog wild and do all manner of crazy things to keep it fresh. If you don't have kids, I wouldn't rush right out to see this, but I do have to say that the 3D was fairly awesome (the opening dream sequence and a chase through the streets of Monaco in particular), and there's a good amount of truly humorous things happening at any given moment, that I would actually say it's worth your money to go see, even without the built-in excuse of kids.
If you are a parent, I sincerely hope you take your kids to see this, because even if there is no dominant redemptive theme to talk with your kids about afterwards, it's pretty awesome for mindless mid-summer fare. Don't let your potential dislike of the franchise keep you away, this is not the same film series it was just four years ago. It feels new, fresh, and is a definite step in the right direction for Dreamworks. Here's hoping they continue the trend.
[Pics via Box Office Mojo]