Film Review: Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

This frenetic, eye-popping follow-up to the previous two 'Madagascar' smash adventures takes the lively zoo animals to Europe at its most scenic, with animation and entertainment that’s strictly first-class.

With Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, the billion-dollar animation franchise picks up with Central Park Zoo refugees Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), and Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) determined to return to their beloved New York City. Executing Operation Penguin Extraction, the animals surreptitiously infiltrate Monte Carlo, where their penguin and monkey cohorts have been partying and gambling too hard. The idea is to get them to use their super-powered airplane to get the zoo animals back home.

Alex and the gang make good on their mission until they run into obsessed Capitaine Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand, voicing a character meshing Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich and Glenn Close in all their most nefarious incarnations). DuBois is the overly motivated Monaco animal-control officer, an alpha-female boss nobody would want who, with an eye on some empty wall space, is driven to bag her very first lion for stuffing.

Escaping Monte Carlo with the penguins and monkeys in tow and wicked DuBois close behind, the zoo-mates hop a train carrying a Russian-Italian traveling circus troupe on the skids. It’s up to Alex and his gang to save this group after their owner sells out and leaves them abandoned. There’s also the problem of troupe morale: One of their key attractions is ego-driven tiger Vitaly (Bryan Cranston), who blew his act and his courage by daring to jump through a flaming hoop not much bigger than what might be a wrestler’s wedding ring. Another in the troupe is Gia (Jessica Chastain), an exotic large Italian jaguar with Gina Lollobrigida eyes who bonds with Alex personally and as a trapeze act. And again on board the franchise are the self-proclaimed lemur monarch, King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen), his lackey Mort (Andy Richter), and right-hand aide Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer).

In the tradition of The Wizard of Oz, the film—amidst all the fun—delightfully pushes themes of confidence, drive, survival and, of course, cherishing one’s home, whether original or adopted. Also trumpeted are themes of creative drive and reinvention: Alex exhorts the dispirited circus animals in true show-biz style: “We need something fresh!” and “Follow your passion!” For the romantically inclined, King Julien’s wooing of the large, mute, tutu-ed circus bear Sonia again underscores love as unfathomable.

Kids will love the film’s explosion of animals (not just those catapulted from cannons), including additions like the traveling circus’ Italian sea lion Stefano (Martin Short), the horses, dogs and elephants. Adults will enjoy satiric references to a Times Square gone too corporate and an incredibly popular circus (Cirque du Soleil) gone too human.

Action scenes, whether they involve air and mountain rescues, speeding trains, or car chases through the familiar Grand Prix roads of Monte Carlo are spectacular, as are glorious evocations of the film’s locales: New York, London, Monte Carlo, Rome (the old-world streets, the Coliseum, the Vatican!) and the Swiss Alps (those piney valleys, those soaring perpendicular granite peaks). The film’s music is also a hoot, including DuBois’ homage to Edith Piaf in fractured French and a blast of Andrea Bocelli schmaltz.

Perhaps most impressive is the high-quality animation, especially those intricate and ingeniously devised action scenes, and the final circus acts (especially Alex and Gia’s trapeze routine) in mega-stadiums, the trippy light shows and the inevitable comeuppance for the villain. It’s all jaw-droppingly dazzling—the details, the color design, the kinetic fire. Clearly, there’s nothing that animation and visual effects can’t deliver. And, mercifully, the 3D pops only when it should and not just because it can.