First, there was Opus, the lovable penguin star of Berkeley Breathed's classic comic strip Bloom County. Then came Sparky the Penguin, the acerbic, conservative-bashing protagonist of Tom Tomorrow's This Modern World (running weekly in this very newspaper). Moving from the print world, The Wrong Trousers, the best of Nick Park's glorious Wallace & Gromit shorts, employed as its villain a mute penguin who disguised himself as a chicken in order to commit a series of robberies.
And now we come to Madagascar, the new animated feature that will give our foul-weather — make that fowl-weather — friends their most prominent showcase to date. The penguins may not be the stars of the film, but they nevertheless represent the most memorable animal act since Puss In Boots hammed his way through last summer's Shrek 2.
Speaking of Shrek 2, Madagascar hails from DreamWorks' animation division, the same outfit that brought us the adventures of the green ogre as well as such offerings as Shark Tale and The Road to El Dorado. Clearly, this toon unit doesn't rely on sentiment as heavily as Disney, preferring instead to come across as the hippest cel block in town. But this constant attempt to remain up-to-date on the latest lingo, fads and pop culture references (regardless of the time period of the film) has, in my opinion, doomed their efforts to a shorter shelf life than the timeless tales generally churned out by Disney. What's more likely to move audiences 35 years from now: The Incredibles, with its emotionally involving storyline about a family in crisis, or Shark Tale, with its flashy hipster stylings failing to disguise the thinness of the material? The best animated features are often the ones which manage to create whole new worlds unto themselves, rarely crossing the line into our universe — think, for example, of the eerie ghost world in Spirited Away or the fairy tale setting of Beauty and the Beast. Conversely, even movies as enjoyable as the Shrek pair can feel jarring with their over reliance on hip references.
All of which makes Madagascar an odd little bird (no, I don't mean the penguins). More than just about any other recent toon flick, it strikes an appropriate balance between Disney and non-Disney, being neither too sudsy nor too smart-alecky. It's hip without being obnoxious, sentimental without being cloying. In any event, we should all be grateful that this movie's around to remove the metallic taste left by Robots and the fishy odor that emanated from Shark Tale.
The animal quartet at the center of Madagascar is comprised of the narcissistic lion Alex (Ben Stiller), the affable zebra Marty (Chris Rock), the commonsensical hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) and the hypochondriac giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer). All are living in peaceful contentment at New York's Central Zoo, satisfied with their meals, living quarters and celebrity status with the zoo's visitors. But on his 10th birthday, Marty begins to question not only his lot in life but his very being. Is he black with white stripes, or white with black stripes? Is there a better existence waiting for him in what he only knows as "the wilds" and which he believes to be located in Connecticut?
Taking a cue from the penguins, four no-nonsense types who plan to dig their way to Antarctica (their "shovel" is a plastic spoon), Marty manages to escape from the zoo, only to be tracked down by his friends at Grand Central Station. All the escapees — the primary quartet, the penguins, and a pair of monkeys hoping to attend a Tom Wolfe lecture so they can throw poo at him — are soon recaptured and shipped off to a wildlife preserve in Kenya. But the ship is taken over by the penguins, and the ensuing mishaps lead to Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria finding themselves stranded on the island of Madagascar, where the untamed environment starts to bring out the best in Marty and the beast in Alex.
Madagascar has earned a PG rating from the MPAA, and it's certainly more warranted than the all-inclusive G rating animated flicks usually receive. While the climactic sequences involving Alex's newfound bloodlust don't match the intensity of numerous scenes from The Lion King (which somehow did cop a G), they're still likely to elicit startled yelps by the youngest of tykes. The film advisory board probably also had its collective eye on the movie's adult-oriented gags, though, truth be told, many of these will fly 30,000 feet above the heads of the kids. There's one brief moment that's a direct homage to the scene in American Beauty (complete with Thomas Newman's music in the background) in which jailbait Mena Suvari falls naked into a bed of rose petals; here, it's an innocuous shot involving the fur-coated Alex and scores of juicy steaks, but the mere allusion may have helped MPAA suits rule on the side of caution.
The American Beauty gag represents one of the best aspects of Madagascar — its ability to toss adult viewers bones that actually have some meat on them. One of the funniest bits pays homage to the original Planet of the Apes. And how many kid flicks manage to include a reference to Howard Hughes? (Germaphobe Melman can be spotted wearing Kleenex boxes on his hooves.) Sops to grownups in animated films are nothing new, but these hors d'oeuvres are so ingenious that, for once, I didn't feel like the victim of shameless pandering.
Still, despite the ingratiating leads (Rock, for one, has never been better), despite the eye-popping animation and despite the competition from other scene-stealers (get a load of those lemurs), the primary reason to see Madagascar is to catch those penguins in all their waddling glory. Whether they're plotting that great escape from Central Park Zoo or smacking around helpless human captives, they never fail to elicit huge roars of approval. These birds may be flightless, but they ensure that Madagascar takes off and never looks down.