An­i­mal spir­its soar

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

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.

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