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Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa in IMAX Review

By Chris Boylan

Born to Be Mild

When is "more of the same" a compliment? When it describes a sequel to a successful and enjoyable original animated film. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, the follow-up to 2005's Madagascar, falls squarely into this camp. The lovably quirky original foursome of zoo animals from the first film is back, along with their friends, the penguins, the monkeys, the lemur king Julien (and his two sidekicks) plus an entourage of new characters.

With the first film leaving our city-slicking zoosters stranded in the real wilds of Madagascar, the sequel finds them escaping from the jungle on Air Penguin - a crudely repaired abandoned airplane piloted and crewed by, you guessed it, the penguins. When an unexpected complication arises on their trip home to New York (apparently planes need fuel), the plane plummets perilously onto the plains of Africa. The passengers are lucky to arrive intact (more or less) and fate brings them together with others of their own kind, for the first time in their adult lives.

For Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), things come even closer to home as he meets the mother and father from whom he was poached away as a tender young cub. His parents are voiced very effectively by Sherri Shephard and the late Bernie Mac, but the most memorable of the new characters is Makunga (Alec Baldwin), a deliciously sleazy wanna-be-alpha-male lion with his eyes squarely on the pride. Makunga sees the return of the prodigal son as an opportunity to once again challenge the pride's leader Zuba (Alex's dad) in an attempt to usurp his throne.

The other zoosters face their own challenges. Melman (David Schwimmer), the hypochondriac giraffe realizes his deep feelings for Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), just as he believes he is preparing to meet his maker. Meanwhile Gloria is busy being swept away by hunky hippo Moto Moto (Swahili for "Hot Hot"), voiced with obvious relish by of the Black-eyed Peas (who also co-wrote some of the film's music with composer Hans Zimmer). And saucy zebra Marty (Chris Rock), is at first overwhelmed and overjoyed by the freedom and anonymity of running with his herd, until he realizes that they're all just like him. Really. Exactly like him. The herd is voiced by Chris Rock, Chris Rock, Chris Rock and, well, you get the picture.

And speaking of the picture, the Dreamworks animation team has outdone themselves here, creating a vast yet believable African backdrop in which the new story unfolds. The relative ease of recreating the Madagascar jungle is replaced now with the complexity of the wide open vistas and big sky of Africa. Reportedly 30,000,000 render hours were required to process the animation code and create the final product we see up on the big screen (as opposed to about 12,000,000 render hours for the first film). 

Billions of blades of grass shudder independently in the breeze and puffy white clouds glow from within, lit by the blazing African sun. Instead of a few animals here, a few animals there (as in the first film), Escape features vast herds of zebra, towers of giraffes, a pride of lions and a bloat of hippos. At times, they're all on-screen together, which creates a tremendous challenge for the CG animators: how do you make these hordes look like a collection of independent individuals, rather than a series of repetitive loops?  Happily the Dreamworks animators answered the call of nature (so to speak) as the densely populated African vistas take on a believable, almost tangible presence.  In a sense, Africa itself becomes a leading character in the movie.

In order to bring this realism into play in an animated film, the film-makers hired Oscar-winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (Pan's Labyrinth) to train the animation crew in the use of actual live action cameras. If they could get a sense of what is possible in the real 3D world, they could understand how these techniques and filming styles should look when rendered in the artificial world of computer animation. And the principal crew actually traveled to Africa on safari so they could see, first-hand, the magnitude and grandeur of what they were trying to capture. Whatever they did, it led to some really beautiful animated cinematography that looked absolutely breath-taking on the enormous IMAX screen. If you have a chance to see the film this way, instead of in a traditional theater, DO IT! It will definitely enhance your enjoyment of the film.

Overall, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa works on many levels: as fine-looking animation, as a charming and funny story about what it's like to be thrust way out of our comfort zone, and as a morality tale on the importance of maintaining your individual identity and character in the face of adversity. The film-makers manage to take familiar characters that we've grown to love from the first film, develop their individual personas even further and give them a fresh story that, while perhaps not particularly ground-breaking, is at least eminently enjoyable.

The fact that they're able to give memorable lines and roles to so many of the original characters as well as several new ones is testament to the story-telling and film-making abilities of the director, Eric Darnell, and his screen-writing team, Tom McGrath and Etan Cohen. The peril is never too perilous (this is a "kids' movie" after all) and the "Wild" trends a bit toward the "Mild" but there is plenty of excitement and funny moments to keep kids and their parents entertained for the duration.

Will our intrepid mild-mannered heroes be able to survive, perhaps even thrive in their new environment? Will the bonds of friendship withstand the pressures of life in the wild? Will they escape from the vast living, pulsing African plains back to the relative calm and tranquility of New York City's Central Park Zoo? For that matter, do they even want to?  And just what is that old lady with the handbag doing here again ("Bad Kitty!")? All these questions and more will be answered in the space of 89 minutes and you're sure to enjoy the ride.

What did you think?

Movie title Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
Release year 2008
MPAA Rating PG
Our rating
Summary With this, the second film in the Madagascar series, Dreamworks Animation gives us more of the same. And by that I mean a fun-filled romp through the wild with our friendly foursome of zany zoosters.
View all articles by Chris Boylan
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