"Madagascar – Escape 2 Africa", the sequel to the enormously successful franchise, er… movie from DreamWorks is a fun, enjoyable film, the perfect way to spend an afternoon with the kids. But it suffers from sequel-it is and doesn't live up to the expectations set forth by the original film.
Picking up more or less after the first film ends, Mort (Andy Richter) and his fellow penguins have been working on an old plane wreck owned by King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen_. They have prepared it for flight and are ready to take Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock) and Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) back to the New York Zoo where they once lived. King Julien and his sidekick Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer) are along for the ride because King Julien owns the airline and wants to sit in First Class and visit New York. The plane manages to get airborne, but the flight doesn't last long and they crash land in Africa, in the middle of a reserve filled with many other animals of their type. Alex runs into his long lost dad, Zuba (Bernie Mac), the king of the lions and his mom (Sherri Shepherd). In an amusing take on "The Lion King", a crafty and devious lion named Makunga (Alec Baldwin) wants to take control of the pride and sets forth a plan that might just help him accomplish this. Marty finds many zebras and begins to doubt how unique he is. Melman, the hypochondriac, becomes a witch doctor and Gloria finds a bunch of hippos eager for some loving. The penguins recruit a bunch of monkeys to help repair the plane. And the old lady who beat up Alex in the New York subway returns; she is on a photo safari and runs across Alex as he is trying to figure everything out.
"Madagascar" employs a highly stylized form of animation, combining sharp angles with computer-generated hair and backgrounds, to create a unique, almost picture book look. But the style is also reminiscent of Warner Bros. cartoons from the 50s, adding an air of irreverence to the characters and the story as well. All of this makes the two films in this series (another sequel is already in the works) more enjoyable, more like an old Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck cartoon. The filmmakers are smart to sort of forge their own identity with this stylized look; Pixar has the lock on computer animated photo realistic films, Disney has a lock on the traditional 'hand-drawn' animation (which is now more computer generated than anything), and DreamWorks films unique look helps them to stand apart from the rest.
Everything starts off promisingly. The four principals are introduced as they get off an elevator singing and dancing to "You Got To Move It… Move It". We quickly get an idea of their plan (they are using an old plane wreck 'repaired' by the penguins to fly back to New York). And King Julien (Cohen) makes a grand entrance, announcing he will join them on their trip. All of this is funny and beautifully animated. When the plane takes off (in a homage to Wile E. Coyote?), the flight provides a lot of laughs. Then the plane crash-lands in Africa.
At this point, the story takes a bit of a nosedive as well. It isn't a bad story; it is just jam packed with characters and storylines. All of these diversions serve to create a tale that appears highly episodic and even choppy.
The filmmakers suffer from sequelitis. They want to make "Escape 2 Africa" bigger and better. Because of this, they have thrown in everything from the first film that worked, added a bunch of new characters, some characters have two or three storylines going on at the same times, and it just becomes too much to hold your concentration. And because so much is going on, we don't have a lot of time with any character, to get reacquainted before the many new characters are introduced.
"Madagascar" had a bunch of memorable moments and characters, but why was it necessary to bring every single memorable character back? The filmmakers are hedging their bets. To throw something out that works, a proven, for a character that might work is simply too risky when the stakes for this film, an animated film costing over $100 million, are so high. This sequel has to be a hit (and is) so they can't simply create new characters and hope these click. If they don't work, people will view the film less favorably. They have to hedge their bets and bring back the old lady who beats up Alex in the New York subway. Now, you may ask yourself how in the heck do they do that? They do it, and it works, and it is even funny. But because it works, the filmmakers create a little subplot for her and carry this through the film. Not only have they brought her back, but they have given her a larger role, making her more prominent. And because they do this, they stretch the credibility of her character too far. She was funny in the first film because she appeared briefly, injecting a quick shot of comedy into the story. In "2", she hangs around too long and her role becomes more mundane.
A short pre-credits sequence establishes how Alex ended up in the New York Zoo to begin with, and introduces his mom, dad and the reservation. When they end up back at the reservation, Alex is overjoyed to be reunited with his parents, but this adds two more subplots for him, pulling his character in even more directions. Naturally, he has the three friends he is traveling with and all of the complications of their relationships. He has to reunite with his mom and dad. He has to deal with the backstabbing Makunga (Alec Baldwin) and more. Alex is always dealing with someone or something and none of these relationships or problems are given enough depth.
It is kind of fun to watch all of the four characters begin to interact with other animals of their species. Marty (Rock) finds a herd of zebra and begins to cavort and run with them, enjoying their similar personalities and attitudes. The filmmakers have done an amusing bit of casting for the voices of these other zebras. Melman (Schwimmer) finds a few other giraffes that are just like him, hypochondriacs, and answers the call to become the reservation's new doctor. Even Gloria (Pinkett-Smith) is an attractive new addition to the herd and a male hippo, Moto Moto (Will I Am) is attracted to Gloria's Ruben-esque figure.
But each of these is another sub-plot. Another story line pulling us in a new direction.
All of these storylines, all of these subplots simply serve to make the film seem long. Longer than an animated film should be. And somehow, this makes it seem less special.