An­i­mal mag­netism

David Stratton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

LEONARD Maltin thought it in­stantly for­get­table, but the orig­i­nal Mada­gas­car , re­leased in 2005, was a crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial suc­cess ($ 533 mil­lion world­wide) for DreamWorks An­i­ma­tion, the com­pany Jef­frey Katzen­berg runs in the ap­par­ent hope that it will ri­val the an­i­mated prod­uct of his for­mer bosses at Walt Dis­ney Pro­duc­tions ( and, if you dis­count the Pixar films, re­leased by Dis­ney, he’s prob­a­bly right).

The premise, you may re­mem­ber, was that Alex, a lion ( voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty, a ze­bra ( Chris Rock), Mel­man, a gi­raffe ( David Sch­wim­mer), and Glo­ria, a hippo ( Jada Pin­kett Smith), are star at­trac­tions at Man­hat­tan’s Cen­tral Park Zoo un­til, in­spired by pen­guins who yearn to visit Antarc­tica, they es­cape, though ini­tially they make it only as far as Grand Cen­tral Sta­tion. Even­tu­ally, in­stalled in crates on a freighter bound for Kenya, they find them­selves lit­er­ally all at sea and are ship­wrecked on Mada­gas­car, an is­land which, in an­i­mal terms at least, is ruled by fun-loving lemurs led by King Julien the 13th ( Sacha Baron Co­hen). There was some plot about Alex re­vert­ing to his nat­u­ral tastes and start­ing to crave meat ( which nat­u­rally made Marty anx­ious) but, in the end, he took up sushi and was pre­par­ing to con­tinue his ad­ven­tures.

The se­quel Mada­gas­car: Es­cape 2 Africa , which, if any­thing, is fun­nier and more as­sured than the orig­i­nal, be­gins where the first film ended. At­tempt­ing to re­turn to New York, the four an­i­mals, ac­com­pa­nied by the pen­guins and an ab­scond­ing King Julien, take off in a makeshift plane in a se­quence that sav­agely at­tacks the in­dig­ni­ties and perils of mod­ern air travel ( scis­sors and hand cream are re­jected dur­ing a se­cu­rity check, and an air safety demon­stra­tion is hi­lar­i­ous). As the ram­shackle air­craft made a crash land­ing on the African main­land, I won­dered whether this se­quence would ever be pre­sented on in-flight movies.

As it hap­pens, the crash, which the main char­ac­ters thank­fully sur­vive, has occurred in the very district from which the in­fant Alex was ( as we’ve seen in an open­ing flash­back) kid­napped by hun­ters for trans­porta­tion to the zoo in Amer­ica. To the theme mu­sic from Born Free , the New York­ers en­counter wildlife around the wa­ter hole, and Alex meets his fa­ther, Zuba ( the late Bernie Mac), the lo­cal lion king. By this time the film’s cheer­fully de­riv­a­tive writer ( Etan Co­hen, not to be con­fused with Ethan Coen) and his screen­play col­lab­o­ra­tors, who are also the film’s direc­tors, Eric Dar­nell and Tom McGrath, have ref­er­enced Twi­light Zone ( the mon­ster on the wing of the plane), The Flight of the Phoenix and The Lion King it­self which, given that the lat­ter is the pride of the Dis­ney sta­ble, is a bit cheeky. But then DreamWorks an­i­ma­tion fea­tures, which in­clude the Shrek fran­chise, pride them­selves on their cheek­i­ness. There’s more to come; per­haps the most en­dear­ing ref­er­ence in the film is to West Side Story .

While Alex is forced to un­dergo a rite of pas­sage to prove his suit­abil­ity as his fa­ther’s suc­ces­sor, and his ri­val, the evil Makunga ( Alec Bald­win), hov­ers threat­en­ingly on the side­lines, Marty, Mel­man and Glo­ria min­gle with their own species, re­sult­ing in some amus­ing ob­ser­va­tions; Marty looks like all the other ze­bras and sen­ti­men­tal Mel­man prefers Glo­ria to the fe­male gi­raffes. Like most an­i­mated fea­tures th­ese days, our own Happy Feet in­cluded, there’s an en­vi­ron­men­tal mes­sage: wa­ter sup­plies are dwin­dling and Alex has to try to do some­thing about it ( the cheer­fully in­ept King Julien’s re­sponse is to of­fer a sac­ri­fice in a handy vol­cano to the wa­ter gods).

In ad­di­tion to all the an­i­mals in­volved there are some hu­mans too, mostly dis­agree­able ones, such as the hun­ters who took Alex away from his home in the first place. Per­haps the most for­mi­da­ble of the two-legged char­ac­ters, though, is an all-Amer­i­can grand­mother ( Elisa Gabrielli), a tourist who is a lot tougher than she looks.

DreamWorks An­i­ma­tion spe­cialises in the com­puter gen­er­ated sys­tem rather than the tra­di­tional cell draw­ings, and if the first Mada­gas­car looked beau­ti­ful, with Alex’s mane amaz­ingly re­al­is­tic, the se­quel is even more so; it’s a very hand­some pro­duc­tion, and a pretty funny one, too, which will keep audiences of all ages — ex­cept per­haps the most cyn­i­cal — thor­oughly en­ter­tained.

* * * CITY of Ember, which is based on a 2003 novel by Jeanne Duprau, is also a fam­ily film but it’s aimed at older chil­dren; its main pro­tag­o­nists are young teenagers. This is a fu­tur­is­tic yarn set in an un­der­ground city built to house the sur­vivors of some un­spec­i­fied apoca­lypse and de­signed to last 200 years. The in­hab­i­tants of Ember are a ho­moge­nous lot ( English speak­ing and seem­ingly at least 90 per cent white) and their leader is Mayor Cole ( Bill Mur­ray), the lat­est in a long line of ad­min­is­tra­tors and, it tran­spires, not a very trust­wor­thy one. An omi­nous open­ing voice-over ex­plains that ‘‘ on the day the world ended’’ in­struc­tions on what to do when Ember’s gen­er­a­tors in­evitably failed to func­tion any more were placed in a small metal box. But the pre­cious box with its se­cret has been scan­dalously mis­laid.

The film’s he­roes are Lina ( played by the very tal­ented Ir­ish ac­tor, Saoirse Ro­nan, who was so good in Atone­ment and Death De­fy­ing Acts ) and her friend, Doon ( Harry Treadaway).

They are all too aware that the city is dy­ing be­cause the power sys­tem is fail­ing, and they want to ad­dress the prob­lem, but they run up against the brick wall of of­fi­cial­dom since the mayor and his toad­y­ing as­sis­tant ( Toby Jones) are more in­ter­ested in short-term greed that in sav­ing the city.

As well as hav­ing a fail­ing gen­er­a­tor, Ember is trou­bled by in­va­sions of nasty bugs and one hor­rific crea­ture, which is a pretty fear­ful par­tic­i­pant in a fam­ily film such as this ( the G rat­ing seems an un­usu­ally gen­er­ous one).

Di­rected by for­mer an­i­ma­tor Gil Ke­nan, City of Ember is very hand­somely de­signed and for the most part in­trigu­ingly de­vel­oped. But ul­ti­mately it doesn’t quite live up to ini­tial ex­pec­ta­tions. The cli­max is too pre­dictable and is rather flatly han­dled into the bar­gain, and it doesn’t be­gin to com­pare with Fritz Lang’s si­lent clas­sic, Metropo­lis , the film it seems at times to be evok­ing.

Nev­er­the­less there are com­pen­sa­tions. Mur­ray is al­ways good to have around, and so are Tim Rob­bins, who plays Doon’s de­feated fa­ther, and Martin Lan­dau as one of the drones who tries to keep the city in work­ing or­der. The young ac­tors are ex­cel­lent.

Hand­some and pretty funny too: Scenes from the an­i­mated an­i­mal ad­ven­ture Mada­gas­car: Es­cape 2 Africa

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