by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment. Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.
Budget: $150 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 64%
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa wastes absolutely no time establishing itself as superior to the first movie. Madagascar flung viewers headfirst into comedy, its opening scene with Marty dreaming of running free in the wild not really getting time to breathe or properly instil the heart and sincerity required to make the film much more than a rapid-fire joke machine. Escape 2 Africa – which, before we go any further, is an incredibly awful name that just gets worse the more it ruminates in my brain – opens with a lengthy prologue detailing how Alex got to New York in the first place.
Once more, just to make the difference clear: Madagascar opens with a scene in which Marty the zebra dreams about wanting to run free in the wild, before Alex startles him out of it. It lasts about 45 seconds and it is absolutely not meant to be taken seriously, as evidenced by the fact that it starts with Marty swinging through the air on a vine like George In The Jungle. Madagascar 2 opens with a four-and-a-half minute (6 minutes and 45 seconds if you want to include the entirety of the prologue) sequence where Alex as a child is poached by some hunters but ends up accidentally drifting out to sea and is rescued by the Central Park Zoo. The scene does have some jokes, but the general tone is being played for actual heart, real resonance instead of just gut-reflex laughs. The gags don’t undercut the sequence, they stay away during its heavier moments.
Madagascar wasn’t a bad movie, far from it, but it was disposable. Its lack of a real emotional centre meant that the film didn’t really register far beyond its jokes, so proceedings fell flat whenever the jokes didn’t land or when it tried to force genuine emotional resonance from a cast who spend much of those 80 minutes ripping into and insulting one another. Again, this wasn’t a major problem – because a good majority of those jokes did land and there’s only really one prolonged stretch where the film tries to force an emotional centre it doesn’t really have – but it is something that kept it from being a great movie instead of a pretty darn good one.
Escape 2 Africa is all about that heart. The film is still very funny and very silly – we will get to that – but this time there’s a real underpinning of heart to proceedings. Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria spend far more of their relatively brief interactions with one another being friends with each other instead of sniping with barely concealed hatred. Each of their respective plots hones in on an insecurity of theirs and plays that for laughs and drama instead of all laughs all the time. There’s a genuinely kind-hearted and good-natured vibe to proceedings, this time, instead of feeling like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia but with talking animals.
In fact, a lot of Escape 2 Africa revolves around retconning and adding actual fully-formed characters for our cast. Again, although it wasn’t bad, Madagascar didn’t really have any characters. Alex and Marty were defined purely by how accustomed to The Wild they both are, whilst Melman gets the one trait of being a hypochondriac and Gloria kinda just existed every now and again. Therefore, much of their characterisation in this one can come out of nowhere with only Alex, just now with father issues, and Marty, whose insecurities about not feeling like a true individual come about organically, remaining consistent between films.
Melman turns out to have a crush on Gloria despite literally no such hints of that coming up in the first film, especially ‘out-of-nowhere’ as he becomes a stammering blithering tool around Gloria once this becomes knowledge to the viewer – otherwise known as Hugh Granting. Gloria suddenly expresses a desire to procreate because she has “reached that time in her life” and, not coincidentally, around the time we learn about Melman’s feelings for her. The dynamic between King Julian and his assistant Maurice, meanwhile, has completely changed – whereas in Madagascar Maurice was openly contemptuous of having to serve Julian, here he is a devoted follower who holds Julian in high esteem with nothing but respect.
One could get the feeling that everybody involved was hoping that the three year gap between the two films would cause the viewers of the original to forget the specifics of each character, and therefore find these new traits either totally in character or fitting with what came before. Oftentimes, they aren’t. However, I’m willing to let that all slide because I will always a little bit of character inconsistency if the trade-off is more heart. That kid-focussed prologue demonstrates more genuine love and respect between the lead cast than the entirety of Madagascar did, Melman’s crush gives him and Gloria something to do, and the new-found bestest-buddies-for-life nature of King Julian and Maurice adds genuine heart and depth to a pair who felt absolutely superfluous to the first film.
Of course, one cannot talk about the heart in Madagascar 2 without bringing up the Disney-shaped elephant in the room: the fact that Alex’s plot – which is the main plot by virtue of it taking up the most screen-time – very frequently resembles that of The Lion King. Many film critics at the time derided the film for ripping off The Lion King and it’s not hard to see how they could have come to that conclusion. Alex as a young lion cub was very much uninterested in leading the pack, there’s a scheming second lion who wishes to take over leadership for himself (Makunga, voiced by Alec Baldwin), there’s… err, there’s that one scene in the pilot of Father Of The Pride where the show dared to suggest that film is anything less than a masterpiece… … …um…
See why I held off for a good while on bringing that up? Other than the absolute barest of strokes, The Lion King doesn’t really factor into Madagascar 2. In fairness, that’s more down to the fact that Madagascar 2 instead cribs and rips the generic bones from pretty much Every Animated Film Evver instead. Yes, original plotting is not the film’s strong suit. Alex’s return to his pride goes pretty much exactly how you’re expecting it to, right down to Makunga tricking him into banishment, Gloria falls for a smooth-talking hippo who can only compliment her on her appearance instead of her personality, there’s a climactic setpiece revolving around a volcano which was a genuine trend in animated kids’ films in the mid/late-00s – I am not making this up.
This, basically, is why Madagascar 2’s heart connects but not in any particularly lasting way. It’s not just that it cribs from tonnes of other films or standard stories, but it’s the fact that it doesn’t really execute them in any fancy or deep way. The heart is genuine, but it’s like the film’s writers (Etan Cohen, and returning writer-directors Tom McGrath and Eric Darnell) were so scared of repeating the mistake of the first film – undercutting any attempt at drama with a big joke – that they decided to withhold their imagination and creativity for those sequences. Again, they still hit, because the execution is great, but they don’t stick for long after viewing.
Instead, what does stick are the jokes, and more specifically the moments where the film indulges in crazy. The first film was very much all crazy all the time. There was no real baseline to proceedings, again because of that lack of heart, so everything was pitched at 11 with the sole intention of making the viewer laugh. With heart now underpinning the main plots, and therefore bringing a lot of the material there back down to earth somewhat, it allows the cuts back to the penguins or King Julian or the stranded tourists to really hit hard. Or, to put it otherwise, a gag like this…
…wouldn’t have slayed me in the same way if it had appeared in Madagascar. After all, that was a film in which Marty made his arrival onto the island by riding a group of dolphins like jet-skis. Everybody was crazy, everybody was broad, which meant that there was no real switch-up in terms of joke register. Here, there’s a hierarchy. Each of the cast operates on their own level of the joke chart – most of our main cast representing character comedy; The Penguins, Chimps, Nana and Mort (the few times the film actually deploys him) representing absurdist cartoon comedy; Julian and Alex slotting somewhere in between – which not only adds variety in terms of jokes, but allows the jokes themselves to gain an added twist or zest by dropping characters from one category into another.
For example, The Penguins. On their own, they are incredibly funny creations whose dynamic could sustain a full film if the opportunity were given (as it has been, you can guarantee a review from me as soon as I see it). Mixed in with the main cast, they provide a livewire spark of chaos where their dynamic – sort of a cross between a 60s spy thriller, a hardboiled noir tale, and The Three Stooges – comes off as insulated and insane through the eyes of our more sane characters. Mixing in crazy with crazy, as is what happens when they team up with Phil and Mason the Chimps in order to fix the plane, and you get delightfully ridiculous mayhem. Season that combination with the main cast and you get, well, this…
The Penguins are still my favourite part of this series so far, but Madagascar 2 makes it harder to clearly separate their hilarious individual scenes from the rest of the film as something to point to and go, “Yeah, I like that. More of that, please!” I think I count a single short scene where it is just them being them with nobody else involved in any way – the short bit involving the fuel warning light. Everything else in this film with them involves another aspect of the cast. Mason and Phil, Alex, Nana in the film’s most hysterical dark gag. Whereas the first film very much sequestered the Penguins away from the rest of the action after having kick-started it, 2 integrates them into the overall ensemble which elevates proceedings as a result.
Yes, see, Madagascar 2 takes the “BIGGER, BIGGER, MORE OF EVERYTHING” approach to sequel making, much like Shrek 2 did earlier in this series and very much like Rio 2 did earlier this year. Everyone is back from Madagascar, pretty much, and everybody gets something to do, yet nothing feels skimped out on. Alex only gets the most screen-time because his is the story that needs the most amount of screen-time to tell – although a more cynical person than myself could argue that it’s because Ben Stiller is the one member of the cast whose box office star hadn’t totally faded by the time of the film’s release. Everything is well-balanced, everything is told economically, everything is balanced so’s we know which plots we’re supposed to properly invest in and which we are supposed to take as merely joke fodder.
On that note, Nana. Nana, as you may recall, is the (possibly Russian) old lady from the first film who manhandles Alex during the bit in Grand Central Station. She returns in this one, seemingly just for a rematch that’s admittedly funny but strongly gives off the vibe that Madagascar 2 has no new ideas of its own – it also reminded me of the Peter/Chicken fights from Family Guy but, thankfully, knows to cut itself off early before it runs the risk of stopping being funny. Except the film keeps going back to her, playing up her Terminator-style endurance, survival instincts and near-total hatred for nature as character traits instead of just jokes, before finally making her an outright villain.
This, to me, is the perfect encapsulation of what a sequel like Madagascar 2 should do – note: not all sequels should strive to be like Madagascar 2, but this is not a bad level to aim for if that’s the case – taking seemingly throwaway things from the first film and then developing them into fully fledged entities of their own that don’t just redo the gag from the first film. Madagascar 2 is guilty of reusing gags, but its best moments, like Nana, evolve them into either a full-on part of the film or at least change the set-up and delivery enough to alter the gag in some way and keep it fresh. And when it’s not doing that, it’s injecting a tonne of heart into proceedings, or coming up with fresh gags of its own. It’s not lazy, something that’s farted out because the brand recognition alone guarantees a $60 mil+ opening weekend, it’s actively trying to improve.
If there is a major flaw in Madagascar 2 – the unoriginality of much of the plotting excepted – it’s that its main villain (Nana’s true villain status is withheld until the finale) is kinda really boring. Makunga doesn’t really do anything or serve any real purpose other than being the catalyst for getting Alex thrown out of the watering hole; plot that could have been accomplished by far more interesting means. He is voiced by Alec Baldwin, who tries to bring some Jack Donaghy-style scheming to the character, but he’s also modelled to look like him so his face is… distracting, and the ridiculous quiff that he sports really doesn’t fit into the art of the film’s world. The rest of the film looks outstanding – colours are more vibrant, everything is more detailed, camerawork is more dynamic, storyboarding has had some more effort put into it – but Makunga never seems to belong with the rest of the film, both visually and narratively.
So, with Madagascar 2 being that rare example of a comedy sequel that’s funnier and better than the original, one would expect it to have been a 22 Jump Street sort of success, majorly improving on the box office receipts of the first film. Well, kinda. Domestically, it’s the lowest-grossing entry in the series so far (although Penguins Of Madagascar may end up taking that title shortly if this weekend’s box office results are any indicator). There, of course, was the $60 million opening weekend, a combination of the first Madagascar, the strength of the DreamWorks brand and a weak set of opposing movies. But then November 2008 got pretty crowded, and Madagascar 2 was booted from the chart after 6 weeks. Compared to its predecessor’s 8 week run in the Top 10, and the very big success of Kung Fu Panda earlier in the year, this looks rather weak.
Yet the film closed with more money in box office receipts than its predecessor. How? Three words: foreign box office. Overseas, Madagascar 2 grossed an outstanding $423 million, which is what ultimately pushed the thing over-the-top and way past the first film. Going down that list of markets, a pattern begins to emerge as to where the most successful performances are. United Kingdom, Spain, Russia, France, Italy, Germany… Europe really couldn’t get enough of Madagascar 2. Suddenly it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Madagascar 3 is predominately set in Europe, does it? I mean, I’ve yet to see the thing so I can’t comment on whether the thing really is as financially calculated as it now looks on paper, but I can pretty much guarantee that somebody at DreamWorks looked at those numbers and had a “Eureka!” moment.
I mentioned at the beginning of last week’s entry that I hold up 2008 as the peak year of DreamWorks Animation. The year where everything came together and they put out high quality material to well-deserved critical praise and very well-deserved financial success. Now, I made that observation before having seen Madagascar 2 – going purely by soft critical success instead of personal first-hand experience – but it’s one that has been cemented after watching the thing. It’s not an outstanding film, but it is a damn good one that represents a giant leap forward in quality for the Madagascar series, and the financial success of that, along with Kung Fu Panda and the launch of their first successful TV series The Penguins Of Madagascar, put the company at a peak they’ve really yet to reach.
2008, you see, is the first year since 2004 where the company was clearly trying as a whole – instead of that effort being located in a few isolated pockets – and treating their films as art instead of disposable products (again, it may not be completely successful at it, but Madagascar 2 was clearly trying to be more than disposable). The public responded in kind with a veritable money shower and very healthy-looking television ratings. Nowadays, the second half of that equation is mostly gone, for whatever reason, and it’s never really going to come back. DreamWorks Animation is too big now to get this kind of concentrated success any more: three films a year, multiple TV shows on the go at any one time, new online platforms that you didn’t even know existed until now (admit it). There are too many variables, too many spinning plates, and some of them are going to fall at some point during the year; it’s inevitable. Hell, as 2014 may be proving to you, those falling plates show no sign of stopping any time soon.
But, for 12 glorious months in the year dated 2008, DreamWorks Animation were pretty much untouchable. They were the kings of the animation world, and they really rather deserved it.
Next week, we close out the decade known as the 2000s by looking at their sole feature film release for 2009: Monsters vs. Aliens.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!