Every time a new animated film comes along, grown-ups have to ask themselves a series of questions: Will it scare their kids, teach them bad habits or annoying behavior, or instill a ravening need for a particular series of toys or other spin-offs? More importantly, will there be anything in the film to keep adult viewers occupied? With Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, at least, the answer is yes: Grown-ups can spend their time totting up all the scenes, ideas, plot points, and characters ripped off from other films. Actually, Madagascar 2 is so egregiously lazy with its story that even the littlest kids may wind up counting along with their parents.
In an opening flashback, an African lion named Zuba squares off against his scheming, underhanded rival Makunga (Alec Baldwin), and in the process loses his tiny son Alex to poachers. Years later, a grown-up Alex and his zoo-animal buddies from the first film attempt to leave Madagascar and return home to New York. Instead, they crash-land in Africa, where a family joyful reunion between Zuba and Alex turns sour when Makunga uses Alex as a pawn to oust Zuba from leadership of their pride. Meanwhile, Alex's buddies (again voiced by Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, and Jada Pinkett-Smith) briefly find Africa is a hyperbolically awesome wish-fulfilling paradise. Then, in a series of particularly halfhearted, dumb developments, they learn that it isn't perfect enough to hold their interest. The film's best bits mostly come as Pinkett-Smith's character gets romanced (and serenaded) by a size-obsessed hippo voiced by Will.I.Am. But "best" is a relative term for such a limp enterprise.
The first Madagascar was surprisingly enjoyable, thanks to high energy and playfully dark material, but the returning writing-directing crew doesn't seem nearly as invested this time around. Everything here is either wacky business recycled from the first film (a cover of "I Like To Move It, Move It," antics with the Mission: Impossible tough-guy penguins, Sacha Baron Cohen as a loopy lemur) and stretched out to eat up more time, or acquired wholesale from The Lion King, The Wild, The Simpsons, and the Ice Age movies. (How many more CGI-animal movies this decade can possibly base a climactic ending around a volcano sacrifice?) New question for the checklist, parents: "Does this film have any reason for existing, apart from conning me and the kids out of a bunch of money?" Hint: when it comes to time-wasting memory games, crossword puzzles are more fun than this movie.