And then I realized something. Alex had been running on his hind legs—like a cartoon character—and I hadn't noticed.
In the coming weeks you'll hear a lot about how hard Madagascar works at being cartoony—that is, for pushing the principles of squash and stretch further than most big-budget studio CGI productions, and using the snappy timing we equate with the golden age of Hollywood cartoons. But that little scene made me realize there's more to it than that; the writers and directors actually took the time to think about how the characters' cartooniness works, and how it fits in the story. Think about how the Looney Tunes worked. Sylvester would often walk upright, only crouching on all fours when he was being particularly feline—stalking a mouse or trying to sneak from one place to another. Similarly, Alex and Gloria (a surprisingly spry hippo), two of the most urbanized characters in the movie, walk an their hind legs most of the time, while Marty, who fancies himself a creature of the wild, is always doing the quadruped thing. (I assume that Melman, a hypochondriac giraffe, remains on all fours because he would look utterly ridiculous otherwise.)
DreamWorks tried the same kind of animals-just-like-us-but-in-captivity shtick in the ill-fated Father of the Pride television series, but it works better here, for some reason. Maybe it's because Madgascar's creators worked harder at keeping the animals animal-like. Consider that in Father of the Pride, the lions lived in a thatched house, with furniture, while in captivity. The humans must know this, but they still think of them as dumb animals. Look back at old Looney Tunes, and you'll find that any animal that has a sofa is probably holding conversations with the human neighbours. In Madagascar, the zoo animals live in zoo habitats; they speak to each other and sometimes act like humans, but the visitors and zookeepers only hear growls and grunts and don't notice the animals' behaviour. As Skipper, the leader of the penguin quartet, puts it, "Just smile and wave, boys. Look cuddly." By accident or design, the humans are totally oblivious.
It also sets up the story nicely. The story starts when Marty, longing to find a way to run free in the wild, leaves the zoo to try to catch a train to Connecticut (don't ask). His friends scramble to stop him, leading to a standoff in Grand Central Station in which the affable Alex tries to reassure the authorities—who misinterpret his ingratiating dialogue as threatening growls. The next thing our heroes know, they're being shipped off to a Kenyan wildlife preserve, until a series of events lands them on the coast of Madagascar, without a human in sight.
The idea of urbanites as fishes out of water is a Hollywood staple, but there's a nice extra shading here. Like SUV owners who dream of going offroad but can't leave home without air conditioning and a DVD player, Marty's vision of the wild is so limited that he doesn't even realize he's in it until the dotty, party-mad King Julien (the self-proclaimed leader of the lemurs) spells it out for him. Even then, his view of the wild is strictly Club Med—until Alex, starved after days without steak, finds his predatory instincts awakened. Suddenly, the dangers of the wild become all too clear, and Marty, Gloria and Melman abruptly become aware of the dangers and death all around them. (Here, too, another Looney Tunes gag appears; whenever hunger-maddened Alex starts to lose control, he sees his friends as walking steaks.)
Although relatively brief at 80 minutes, there's a lot to enjoy in Madagascar. The dialogue is snappy and unforced, with a great mix of New York pride, sass, and arrogance. (And, in Melman's case, neurosis.) Skipper and his comrades steal any scene they're in, subverting the idea of penguins as cute and harmless by plotting their every move like a military operation and constantly observing their surroundings with furtive, almost malevolent sidelong glances. The pair of monkeys—one calm and erudite, the other communicating in sign language—make for a great pair, enlightened enough to hope to catch Tom Wolfe at the Lincoln Center, but not above planning to throw poo at him. It's too bad they only had a few scenes.
But at the same time, there are the habits that DreamWorks seem loath to shake. The lemurs' party song, "I Like to Move It," gets plenty of play—but the song is just old enough that it will probably date the movie by the time it hits DVD. Then there are the riffs on National Geographic Explorer, Hawaii Five-0, and Chariots of Fire, among others—and the latter two come one right after the other! I appreciate the occasional pop-culture gag, but enough is enough, already. I'd like to see if the next DreamWorks film can try to limit them to, say, one an hour.
There's also a problem with the movie's theme: it's hard to figure out what it is. Madagascar touches on the ideas of friendship transcending all, being careful of what you wish for, the perils of domestication, and probably a handful more, but none of them are really developed enough to define as the main theme, or even as parallel themes. Storywise, the movie relates a sequence of events, rather than being about something.
Not that this prevents me from recommending Madagascar. While I doubt I could watch it repeatedly, it's fun, it's light, and it's certainly not a bad way to pass 80 minutes. The worst you could say about it is that it's a trifle; it's enjoyable while you're experiencing it and fine to savour for a little while after, but overindulging is probably a bad idea.