Madagascar, DreamWorks' latest computer-animated comedy, tests the validity of that celebrated lyric from Kander and Ebb's "New York, New York": "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere." The four Central Park Zoo animals of this tale are making it just fine in Manhattan: protected, pampered, well-fed and adored in their deluxe accommodations. But once they're abandoned on the jungle island of the title, making it to the next day is a whole other question.
The notion of sheltered New York beasts removed from their artificial environment is irresistible, and if Madagascar doesn't quite deliver on its initial promise, it's still a likeable and loose-limbed addition to the ever-growing CGI family. The star quartet of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith lend their distinctive voices to the leads, but it's a squad of mutinous penguins and an egomaniacal lemur monarch who steal the show.
The movie opens on the tenth birthday of Marty (Rock), a restless zebra who is facing something of a mid-life crisis as he ponders the predictable daily routine of his confined existence. Marty's best friend is Alex (Stiller), a showboating lion who revels in his role as the zoo's reigning star. Completing the menagerie are Melman (Schwimmer), a hypochondriac giraffe, and Gloria (Pinkett Smith), a no-nonsense hippo. After sundown, Marty succeeds in breaking free and heads for Grand Central Station, where he hopes to board a train for the "wilds" of Connecticut. Alex, Gloria and Melman escape and track Marty down at the station, but the sight of a lion and his buddies ignites a panic, and the foursome is soon drugged and sent by sea to their alien natural habitat. When those aforementioned scheming penguins commandeer the ship and steer it toward Antarctica, the crates containing the quartet fall overboard and eventually land on the shores of that exotic island off the east coast of Africa.
Maybe this is a biased New Yorker talking, but the stronger sections of Madagascar are those that take place back in civilization (a debatable term when discussing the Big Apple). The Central Park designs, looking very much like the real thing, are enchanting, and it's a comic treat to watch a giraffe attempt to board a subway train. (The police horse who gives directions to Marty in a thick Brooklyn accent is also a hoot.) The shipboard sequence is another high point, as those penguins efficiently disarm the human crew, under the orders of a tough-talking leader voiced by Tom McGrath, who co-directed with Eric Darnell.
Once the movie arrives at its title destination, the screenplay has trouble maintaining momentum. Marty and Gloria adjust all too readily to their new environment; it's Alex who has the lion's share (sorry) of grief, suddenly deprived of his star perks and daily supply of grade-A steaks. For energy, the movie turns to the local population, a tribe of zany lemurs who love to boogie. Sacha Baron Cohen of HBO's "Da Ali G Show" is inspired as their ruler, a self-enamored goofball who hopes these recently arrived "New York Giants" can scare off their chief nemesis, the vicious, wildcat-like fossas.
The movie's one "deep" plot element is Alex's struggle with his own predator's instincts, once he's deprived of meat and he becomes conscious of all the potential prey surrounding him, including his best friend Marty. Movie buffs will be reminded of the cabin scene with the starving Chaplin in The Gold Rush, and of how good the occasional Chaplin comedy would be for their children's movie diets.
Like the Shrek films, Madagascar relies a little too heavily on easy pop-culture gags-a little "Twilight Zone" here, a little "Planet of the Apes" there, even a sendup of DreamWorks' own American Beauty that will baffle the kiddies. But Darnell and McGrath also achieve something fresh for computer animation: a cheerfully elastic approach to character movement that's reminiscent of the wild aesthetic of Tex Avery and the Warner Brothers gang.
Madagascar falls short of a computer-animated classic, but its lively performances, bright designs and occasional glimmers of wit make a creditable start to the summer family-movie season.