In retrospect, it seems so obvious: instead of sending the Madagascar crew some new locale, just put them in the circus. The sight gags would write themselves and get around that whole “new location, same formula” problem in the bargain. It took three movies for Madagascar to reach that conclusion, and they make sure they don’t waste the opportunity. Not that you’d know it from the anemic ad campaign, which I’m betting has a lot of people happily looking for alternative forms of entertainment this weekend. That’s a tragedy because – against all odds – Madagascar 3 actually turns out to be a marvelous good time.
The first two films in the series set a reasonable bar for quality: entertaining babysitters that don’t offend us with their stupidity but never reach the heights of top-tier animation. Madagascar 3 doesn’t push the envelope at all, and yet it devotes so much care and attention to every gag that it feels like something fresh and daring. More than anything, it plays like an old Marx Brothers movie. Armed with a solid cast of characters, the energy never drops for a moment.
It helps that the core quartet remains as charming as ever. Still stuck in Africa as the film opens, Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (voiced by Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (voiced by Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (voiced by David Schwimmer) decide to pull stakes and return to New York. To do that, they need to make their way to Monaco, where those pesky penguins have hit the casinos with their homemade plane in tow. When they get there, they run afoul of Chantel Du Bois (voiced by Frances McDormand), the local animal control officer with a wall of mounted heads and a perfect kill record. A travelling circus provides some respite, despite the reservations of its tiger star (voiced by Bryan Cranston) and the fact that the four heroes can't perform any tricks besides Alex's lame roaring thing.
The framework holds water and even manages to squeeze a few quiet lessons about being yourself amid all the mayhem. If that doesn't sound like much, keep in mind that we have fifteen key figures to keep track of in a scant 85 minutes. The circus also includes a comely jaguar (voiced by Jessica Chastain), a dim but enthusiastic sea lion (voiced by Martin Short) and a bear on a tricycle who – in one of the film's most brilliant concepts – engages in a mad love affair with the redoubtable King Julian (voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen). "Machine gun pacing" doesn't begin to cover it: we're showered with so much so fast that we can only hold on madly for the ride.
But all that rollicking chaos stays very much under control, thanks to the strong hand of directors Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon. They dispense with unnecessary new character developments, trusting that we know these figures well enough and focusing solely on getting them from point A to point B. They fill the intervening space with an endless series of clever jokes: every one honed to a razor point and delivered with impeccable timing. The penguins steal the show again (with help from McGrath who voices their lead), but everyone has their chance to cut us up and they don’t miss a single one.
The circus notion provides ample opportunities for dazzling visual displays as well, particularly when Alex hits on the idea of revamping the acts a la Cirque du Soleil. The directors make good use of the 3D format – this is a solid week for fans of those damn glasses – and bring us some fun new corners of this universe without losing their connection to the previous series.
Like its protagonists, Madagascar 3 wants only to entertain us. That it does so with such panache constitutes one of the bigger surprises of the summer. Not only is it the best of the series so far, but it actually makes us look forward to the prospect of a Part Four. As long as they keep a spring like this in their step, they won't go too far wrong.