MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE'S MOST WANTED (2012) (***)
DreamWorks' MADAGASCAR series has always been its attempt to bring a Looney Tunes vibe to animated features. In the third installment, the frenetic pace of classic Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck shorts is turned up to 11. While the series has never produced anything truly inspired, it has delivered entertainment and here Alex and friends get into the entertainment business.
Alex the lion (Ben Stiller, TROPIC THUNDER) wants to get back home to the New York zoo. Tired of waiting for the crafty penguins to return from Monte Carlo, he leads Marty the zebra (Chris Rock, DOGMA), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer, TV's FRIENDS) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith, THE MATRIX RELOADED) on a mission to the glitzy gambling city to get the penguins and their monkey companions to fly them to the U.S. Let's just say Monte Carlo doesn't go as planned and the fugitive furry friends get relentless animal control officer Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand, FARGO) on their tails.
In order to get the heat off them, they board a circus train and convince the animals they're circus performers from America. Stefano the sea lion (Martin Short, INNER SPACE) is thrilled — wanting Alex to teach them Americano-style circus so they can impress a recruit in London. Alex sees the opportunity to get back home and cooks up an elaborate act, but can he teach Gia the cheetah (Jessica Chastain, THE HELP) how to do the trapeze over a pool of cobras involving jetpacks and balloons for all the children of the world? Vitaly the tiger (Bryan Cranston, DRIVE), a grizzled old school circus man, is not sure at all.
For new people coming into the series, the ever expanding cast could be a problem. Even I found myself thinking, "Who's that again?" What the new characters do for the series is give it new purpose though. Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria are not hashing out the same issues from the first two films. DreamWorks has done a solid job moving the series forward. This installment brings a nice conclusion to the trilogy, while setting up a new direction for more adventures. In a transmedia world, I see a circus-themed stage show coming.
Alex is still at the center of the story, while the others have smaller story arcs that fit nicely into the themes of going home and the circus. The core theme over the entire film is finding one's passion. Alex's passion is getting home to his fans at the zoo. His job at the circus is to light a spark in them. Vitaly was once a huge star, but he has lost his flame. And how do you push a tiger who throws knives into doing something he doesn't want to do?
Of course fan favorite, King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen, BORAT) gets a funny arc with a new romance with the circus' grunting performing bear. It contains the film's funniest bits because the jokes come organically from the silly situation instead of being tacked on. Another highlight is Short as Stefano. He brings enthusiasm and great comic timing to the role, while creating a genuine character that we care about. He serves the same purpose Dug did in UP — the true believer.
And good sequels often have good villains. Captain DuBois is one. She's ridiculously over-the-top — more like the Terminator than an average officer of the law. In a creepy move, her skin is textured like a wax figure. Shiver! Her single-mindedness and passion for putting Alex's head on her wall make her a real threat. The "all hope is lost" moment before the third act damps some of her cunning in an effort to cram her back into the plot and find a division between Alex and friends and the circus animals. But DuBois comes back in the end with her evil dial turned to 12.
Colorful and fast, MADAGASCAR 3 flies at the audience like a neon ball shot from a cannon. And in 3-D, animals often do fly right out at the crowd. While the MADAGASCAR series has never reached the heights that the SHREK franchise did early on, it has stayed true to itself and never became a bad sitcom with animals. It's a series that gets a bit better as it goes along, which is not easy to do. I'm actually intrigued where the franchise could go from here. Cirque du kit-té, perhaps?