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Penguins again rule in second Madagascar

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Anyone who thinks that the Madagascar franchise is all about the Benjamin (Stiller, that is) has seriously overrated the importance of marquee names to animated flicks. With rare exception (say, Eddie Murphy in the Shrek works), the most memorable cartoon characters have nothing to do with A-list casting (who even remembers that Bruce Willis starred in Over the Hedge?) and everything to do with matching the tone with the toon (I ask you, what superstar could have done better than relatively unknown Patton Oswalt as Ratatouille's Remy?). So while the cast of Madagascar and its new sequel, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, is headed by Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith, it's really all about the penguins, baby.

Certainly, Stiller (as Alex the lion), Schwimmer (Melman the giraffe), Pinkett Smith (Gloria the hippo) and especially Rock (Marty the zebra) do their part to make these movies two of the few tolerable non-Pixar/non-Miyazaki toon tales of recent times, but what truly blesses the pair is the presence of the flightless fowl. Led by Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath, co-director of both films), these penguins are among the least sentimental of all animated characters in the history of the film medium. Their cynicism shines through at every turn: After they run over a pesky human with a jeep, one asks, "Is she dead?" When informed that she's not, he then tries to run over her again. Somehow, I don't see Mickey or Porky taking this course of action.

If this follow-up isn't as good as its predecessor, that's largely because the warmed-over central storyline -- so similar to The Lion King that there's even a Scar stand-in -- has to compete with various other plot threads so diffuse that no real narrative momentum is ever established; there's a rushed sense that wasn't present in the first picture. But whenever the penguins pop up for their welcome routine, the movie takes flight.

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