Recent animated efforts have tried to create 3-D characters and environments, but the filmmakers have wisely chosen another course for "Madagascar". Adopting a stylized form of animation, the film looks like a living picture book. Everything is cartoonier than we are used to. Alex, Marty and Melman are still rendered in 3-D, but they are not lifelike and appear to be adapted from a children's book, actually adding to the humor. These characters look like stuffed animals and its funny to watch little kids carrying a small toy of Alex home after their visit to the zoo. They seem more believable as zoo animals and they are certainly cute as the dickens.
In all animated films today, a certain level of irreverence, of zaniness is expected. "Madagascar" doesn't reach the heights of the "Shrek" films, but it comes darn close. Everything from Tom Wolfe to "The Twilight Zone", "American Beauty" to "The Planet of the Apes" is parodied in the film. Most of the kids won't get these jokes and the filmmakers know that. They are included for the adults, to keep them interested in the story. The mark of a great animated film is if both adults and children enjoy the experience. For instance, "The Incredibles" was a fantastic blend of story, action, character and humor which will continue to delight people of all ages. "Madagascar" has a very funny story, great characters, and a lot of humor. On a couple of occasions, the story was a little slow, but I think all of the other areas more than compensate for any shortcomings. And adults will laugh at many of the jokes, probably more so than the kids in the audience.
Ben Stiller and Chris Rock are very good. David Schwimmer seems to be injecting a lot of Ross from "Friends" into the role of Melman, not very original but it works. The real standouts are Tom McGrath and Sacha Baron Cohen.
There are a couple of brilliant additions to the film, which help it rise above. Marty's ideas of visiting the wild are originally fed by Skipper the Penguin (Tom McGrath). Skipper and his sidekicks, two other penguins, are determined to break out of the zoo and return to Antarctica. They skulk around corners like CIA operatives, act in clandestine ways, and manage to accomplish most of their goals. The penguins are a brilliant addition to the story and really liven up the proceedings. I laughed out loud during most of their appearances. For a while, their story takes them in a different direction from the rest of the gang and we lose track of them. Because they are so funny, you long for their return.
When the animals land in Madagascar, they meet King Julian the lemur (Sacha Baron Cohen, TV's "Ali G") and Maurice, his right hand lemur (Cedric the Entertainer) and their entire kingdom of lemurs. Cohen seemed to be channeling the spirit of Peter Sellers, because his voice was an uncanny reproduction of some of Seller's characters. He is very funny as the King, always working on an angle as he tries to figure things out. The Lemurs add a level of frenetic activity and zaniness to the film, ratcheting the humor up a few notches.
The least interesting voice actor is Jada Pinkett Smith. She simply doesn't add anything to the character. IMDb.com lists a handful of other people who were considered for the role and I have to say that I don't think any of them would have made a significant contribution either. A comedian would have been a nice touch. Instead, Gloria seems to be the lone voice of reason among the group, dragging everything down.
"Madagascar" is a really good, very funny film suitable for the entire family. But it is also a great choice if you are with a date or simply alone and want to watch a funny film. You'll enjoy it.