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Friday, May 27, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Movie Review

Zoo animals find it really is a jungle out there in lively "Madagascar"

Special to The Seattle Times

Nature is not pretty. Predators eat their prey. Savage instincts trump docility.

Which is why the lead characters in the delightful "Madagascar," four African animals raised in captivity at a glitzy Manhattan zoo, are largely content repressing their inner wildness for the perks of stardom and the warmth of one another's company.

In this new feature from DreamWorks — with cutting-edge computer animation that nevertheless draws deeply from the influence of hand-drawn cartoon pioneers Tex Avery and Bob Clampett — Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller) is happy to give human tourists and local kids a display of lord-of-the-jungle ferocity. Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock) knows how to turn on the charm; Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) lets his exoticism speak for itself; and Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) is proud of her graceful, aquatic act.

These best friends are creatures of showbiz, adored by crowds and well-fed in their concrete habitats. They could spend the rest of their lives in guaranteed ease except for one thing: Marty is having a midlife crisis. He wonders aloud if he might be happier in a real savanna.

Movie review ***

Showtimes and trailer

"Madagascar," with the voices of Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter. Directed by Tom McGrath and Eric Darnell, from a screenplay by Mark Burton and Billy Frolick. 80 minutes. Rated PG for mild language, crude humor and some thematic elements. Several theaters.

Out of loyalty and against their better judgment, Alex, Melman and Gloria follow Marty as he breaks out of the zoo and heads for a train station. For the crime of unwittingly terrifying New York commuters, the quartet find themselves sealed in crates aboard a ship and accidentally spilled into the sea just off the coast of Madagascar, an East African island.

Washed ashore, Alex and company find what living wild is all about: gathering food; seeking shelter; co-existing with lemurs, hyenas and other unfamiliar creatures. More complicated is what happens to Alex, who is suddenly driven by an instinctive desire to eat other animals — especially best pal Marty.

Co-directors Tom McGrath (an animator on "Space Jam" and a native of Lynnwood) and Eric Darnell ("Antz") make lively family fare out of this ironic fable, in which the natural order of the animal kingdom looks less inviting than the gloss of a big city and cooperation between different species.

Building on unusually inventive vocal performances, particularly those by Schwimmer and Stiller, the filmmakers provide their four leads with sharpened characteristics and a heightened sense of depth. The hilarious Melman, a dedicated hypochondriac, may be found walking with empty Kleenex boxes attached to his hooves but, like the Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz," there is something genuinely soulful and courageous about him. Alex, tormented by his own duality — part predator, part pussycat — on Madagascar, becomes uniquely, unexpectedly interesting.

A subplot involving a cluster of penguins — led by a G. Gordon Liddy-like paranoid nut (voiced by McGrath) — is enormously funny, as they successfully flee the zoo and head for Antarctica on a hijacked ship.

The film goes a bit slack in its second act, and for a while one wonders if "Madagascar" has lost its way.

But Darnell and McGrath regain their footing with the introduction of several clever island creatures, including a king lemur voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen (of HBO's "Da Ali G Show").

The film ends with an obvious bid for a sequel, and why not? "Madagascar" and its charming critters deserve an encore.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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