Animal spirits soar
WITH Madagascar 3, the latest offering from the DreamWorks studio, animation is back where it belongs: firmly in the mainstream of children’s entertainment, with a cast of talking animals. And unfashionable though it is to say so, I’ve always thought that children and animals are what animation is all about.
Certainly that’s how it started. Those early Disney cartoons — that prattling duck, that cheeky mouse, that cute jumbo — not only made it possible for animals to talk. They made it possible for the cinema to defy the laws of physics and simulate miraculous events. Now that computerised special effects can simulate miraculous events in even the dullest liveaction blockbuster (did anyone mention Prometheus?), animation remains the last refuge of the fantasist, the one movie genre free from all constraints of reality. It’s that other, special place, that world apart.
And it still works best with animal heroes. I think the studios know this. The Lion King, Finding Nemo and Ratatouille all made the most of non-human characters, and Happy Feet, with its tap-dancing penguins, proved something of a landmark in George Miller’s career. Shrek, of course, was an ogre, but he appealed to us in much the same way that cartoon animals do; one could take him for a hairless ape or a cuddly hippo. Of course there are serious art-house films where animation serves a purpose: Wall-E, with its little robot hero and powerful environmental message; the enchanting Japanese film Spirited Away, a young girl’s fantastic journey in search of her parents. But what is the point of animation in a film such as The Incredibles, in an age when superheroes all look the same and may well be more convincing in live-action movies with computer-generated effects?
Such questions aside, animals have never seemed more lively than they do in Madagascar 3. Children, like many of their elders, will be delighted to think that animated films can still be a source of innocent fun, free of violent action, lame adult wisecracks and ponderous mythologising. The film had its first showing in Cannes this year and has proved to be that rare thing — a sequel, indeed a second sequel, that is better than its predecessors. If initial boxoffice success is any guide Madagascar 3 may be the most popular animated movie since Toy Story. Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, who directed the first two films, have been joined by Conrad Vernon, who worked on Shrek 2 and Monsters vs. Aliens. The voiceover cast is in fine form, the colour palette is wonderfully rich and gaudy and, like all respectable blockbusters these days, the film is in 3-D.
The strange thing is that for all the zest and enchantment, the animal characters aren’t ★★★ ✩ National release
(PG) especially cute. Funny, yes; witty, prankish, captivating; but never warm and cuddly the way Disney animals used to be. (And perhaps that’s progress; we had more than enough sentimentality with Bambi’s mother.) Thus Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) is an ungainly creature with bug-eyes and a sagging, outsized jaw; Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) has a serpentine neck suggesting some kind of deformity; and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) looks rather too much like a hippo.
The passably handsome one is Alex (Ben Stiller). But, then, Alex is a lion and lions are always our favourite cartoon characters. If all this tells us anything it’s that even with a slightly unprepossessing animal cast, Madagascar 3 works well as storytelling.
You may recall that our four heroes once lived in a New York zoo. In the first film, Marty yearned to be free and somehow finished up with his friends in Madagascar before moving to Africa for further adventures. The third film is about their efforts to get home — a journey that takes them to Monte Carlo, Rome and London in the company of a travelling circus. The circus adds a spectacular new dimension to the story: just as few of us can resist cartoon animals, few can resist a circus.
The new faces include Vitaly (Bryan Cranston), a proud circus tiger of the old school, and Gia, a flirtatious jaguar (Jessica Chastain), for me the film’s most appealing character.
Every adventure story needs a villain, and Chantel DuBois is the scariest and meanest animal-hating villain I’ve seen in a long while. I think she’s modelled on Cruella de Vil, the wicked Disney character who needed the skins of 101 dalmatian puppies to make a fur coat. Voiced in silky, sinister fashion by Frances McDormand (who also gets to sing an Edith Piaf song in one of the film’s few irrelevant digressions), DuBois runs some sort of agency for the control of unwanted animals.
But her real motive in pursuing Alex is to add a lion’s head to her wall of stuffed animal trophies, which already includes cute kittens and bunnies. The young ones will love hissing and booing DuBois, just as they’ll love the circus stunts, the zebra on a tightrope, the bear on a bicycle, the seal shot from a cannon. Even in an animated film it’s possible to feel genuinely anxious for Vitaly, who has to jump through a succession of hoops, each narrower than the one before.
Forget the more laboured jokes for adult viewers, including a preposterous European royal voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen. This is strictly for the young ones: if they can balance the 3-D glasses comfortably on their noses for 93 minutes they should have a great time.