FILM REVIEW: MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE'S MOST WANTED

By Colin Covert 2014-08-16

Tribune Newspapers Critic

3 1/2 stars

"Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" is one of the fanciest, most carefully assembled cartoons ever put on the screen. The jokes come so fast that they're nearly subliminal. Plot points whiz by, and when things threaten to blur, there's a crazy musical number or a tightly worked out physical comedy routine involving a hippo or a penguin.

Then it's back on the bullet train. Your brain goes breathless and giddy struggling to keep up.

Like the last "Madagascar" installment, this one begins right where the previous story left off. Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and the rest of the refugees from the Central Park Zoo are still stranded in Africa and yearning to get back where they belong.

The rickety monkey-built plane from the previous movie achieves liftoff, but the avaricious penguins and vainglorious King Julien the lemur (Sacha Baron Cohen) are, as usual, infuriating double-crossers, and our heroes are left to their own devices.

With faultless cartoon logic, the menagerie scuba-dives to Monaco, where they make a shambles of the famed casino. With animal control officer Capt. Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand) in hot pursuit, they hide in a traveling circus, meeting new characters including Vitaly (Bryan Cranston), a growling, heavy-souled Siberian tiger.

As the circus tours Rome and London, the film has plenty of broad fun with European stereotypes. Capt. DuBois is the opposite of the ineffectual gendarme, pursuing the runaway animals with ninjalike agility and tenacity a Terminator would admire. She's still French to the core, though, breaking into an extended Edith Piaf routine that will tickle kids even if they don't get the context.

There are a couple of funny cross-species love affairs. Cohen's lemur flips for the circus's unicycle star, a plump, tutu-clad grizzly bear. The script, co-written by indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale," "Fantastic Mr. Fox"), adds a creative, off-kilter vibe that sets the cartoon apart from "Madagascar's" animated peers. It's not every writer who would see the comic potential of putting those mismatched lovers in ravishingly romantic Roman vistas with Andrea Bocelli warbling love songs. It kills.

Gia (Jessica Chastain), a flirtatious leopard with eyes for Alex, is a wonderful new addition. She's a sensuous, nubile feline. After some kittenish shenanigans, he impatiently asks her, "Are you 5?" She replies, "Yes," leaving us in the audience to do swift mental calculations from cat years to human to assure ourselves she's not underage. Then you realize you're fretting over moral peril to a cat. A cartoon cat.

A circus contract that could bring the animals back to America sets up the finale, a whirligig spectacle of acrobatic teamwork to the tune of Katy Perry's "Firework" that ends the movie on a delirious high note. This one is almost too good to leave to the children.

MPAA rating: PG (for mild action and rude humor).

Running time: 1:25.

Voice Cast: Ben Stiller (Alex); Chris Rock (Marty); David Schwimmer (Melman); Jada Pinkett Smith (Gloria); Sacha Baron Cohen (King Julien).

Credits: Directed by Eric Darnell; written by Noah Baumbach, produced by Mark Swift and Mireille Soria. A DreamWorks Distribution release.

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