Over the course of four computer-animated films (Antz, Shrek, Shrek 2, and Shark Tale), Dreamworks' animation department has fallen into a comfortable, kid-friendly pattern of pop-culture references, gross-out humor, rim-shot-craving dialogue, jokey musical stings and montages, and frantic mugging. There's nothing inherently wrong with that formula, apart from its calculation and utter lack of substance, but when the jokes don't work and celebrity voices aren't enough, there's nothing left to fall back on. So it's a bit of relief when Dreamworks' latest, Madagascar, plows into its ambitious plot with all the propulsive energy of a toddler on a Pixie Stix bender. The tenor can be shrill, but there's no time to get bored. And on top of that, most of the gags actually work.
Chris Rock voices Marty, a jaded zebra ready for a change after 10 years of comfortable incarceration at Manhattan's Central Park Zoo. The film's few relaxed moments are wasted on his angst, but eventually he flees for the green fields of Connecticut, prompting a rescue mission by his best friends: the zoo's pampered star attraction Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), a bossy hippo named Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith), and the clumsy, hypochondriac, wholly superfluous giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer). A series of far-fetched contrivances land all four animals in the wilds of Madagascar, to Marty's delight and Alex's horror, and to the consternation of the hard-partying, dim-witted lemur locals and their thick-accented king Julian (Da Ali G Show's Sacha Baron Cohen). The zippy pace, aided by spastic, jerky visuals, keeps the story moving along, but the film still finds time for some pleasant chemistry between the characters, especially Marty and Alex; it helps that few of the subplots and tangents bear much weight, or take up much time.
The one exception is the daringly morbid, slow-burning subplot that has Madagascar's cheery cartoon-animal friends discovering, to their mutual shock, that one of them is a dangerous carnivore, and in the wild, he needs to supply his own steak. The intrusion of real-world predatory dynamics takes a couple of chilling and hilariously brutal turns. But typically enough, it also leads to giddy visual jokes, as when the starving Alex dreams of a rain of meat, and winds up lying on his back in a sirloin bed, flapping his arms to make a steak angel. Like its Dreamworks predecessors, Madagascar is a paper-thin comedy, eking its way through 80 minutes with bright colors and giddy dynamism. Its characters are, at most, plot conveniences and excuses for movie references and musical in-jokes. But its energy is generally winning, and its willingness to dip into darker territory gives it more flavor than most kids' films of its too-familiar ilk.