These massive animated movies kind of run together after a while. They generally include inanimate objects or animals in unfamiliar places (Finding Nemo quite literally used the fish-out-of-water scenario); they're all in 3-D now; and they usually have familiar names in the voice cast. So unless the film is something incredibly daring like Up or Wall-E, the big summer cartoons don't offer a great deal of variation.
Perhaps that fact is what makes Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted so ... weird. The nuts and bolts of the series are familiar—animals escape from the zoo, begetting hijinks—but what really happened in that second movie? It's hard to remember, though it probably ended with some dancing over the closing credits. This installment, on the other hand, will be memorable, if only because most mainstream animated flicks don't ignore the children in the audience this much—for the sake of some pretty bizarre humor.
The Central Park Zoo animals—Alex the lion (the voice of Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer)—are stuck in Africa, dying to return to their adopted home of New York. The shrewd penguins and their monkey henchmen have somehow rebuilt a plane, which now rests in Monte Carlo while the penguins mastermind ways to rip off the casinos. Alex and the others arrive to persuade the penguins to fly them back to America, triggering the radar of animal-control officer Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand, playing Madeline Kahn playing Marlene Dietrich). When the plane peters out, their only chance of escape and survival is joining a run-down traveling circus, although DuBois is never far off their scent.
That all seems perfunctory; it's what you'd expect out of a three-quel—tossing in some new locations and new characters, but not reinventing the wheel. However, Madagascar 3 is so loaded with oddities that it makes the ride more than worthwhile. Consider DuBois' cabaret torch-song performance—in French, with no subtitles—and the go-for-broke romantic pairing of King Julien the lemur (Sacha Baron Cohen) and what appears to be a lobotomized, tricycle-riding bear in a tutu.
Are the filmmakers just bored with the scenery they have created? Are they giving parents a reward for making it through two previous movies that are so similar to everything else in the genre? Perhaps. They did, after all, hire esteemed indie auteur Noah Baumbach, from The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg, to help craft the script. This has a lot more in common with his co-written screenplay for Fantastic Mr. Fox than it does with, say, Ice Age.
The strange sense of humor is catapulted to great heights through sumptuous, flawless animation. No, the DreamWorks movies aren't as driven by photorealistic perfection as Pixar films, but there's never a dull pixel onscreen here, and the imagination in the screenplay has unlocked a dazzling amount of color and action. And Madagascar 3 gets even stronger through casting: McDormand is fantastic, as are circus performers voiced by Martin Short, Bryan Cranston and Jessica Chastain.
Unless you have that Pixar brand name, animation is supposed to be the safe haven for movie studios while they play roulette in other genres. Cartoons are only supposed to make kids laugh and sell merchandise. And with an established pattern in place for this franchise, why take on all the trouble of going off the beaten path like this? Whatever the reasons, the gamble really paid off: Madagascar 3 is quite easily the best film in the series.