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