by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Apologies for the delay, this week, folks. I needed extra time to be able to crack this one, and I’d rather be late than turn in a sub-par entry. Anyways…
Last year, DreamWorks Animation celebrated its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Callum Petch has been 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: $145 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81%
Why is it that the third instalment in a trilogy is typically the weakest? It’s a commonly held belief that the finale to a trilogy is always the weakest part, but why exactly is that often the case? Typically, when a third instalment of something falls, it’s because the formula powering the series has become ever more apparent and the film itself lacks the ideas, energy, and originality to mask that fact. Franchises are often scared to come up with new avenues to take their cast and world down, most likely out of fear that audiences will reject them out of hand, so they simply recycle and do-over, only increasing the scale in the hopes that the scale distracts people from the realisation that everybody involved is out of ideas and/or phoning it in.
There are two separate ways out of that issue, however. The first is to use your characters and world to explore new themes, even if the surface dressing is still the same – the Toy Story series, for example, has the same basic plot outline each movie, the toys get separated from Andy and have to find their way back to him, but uses that to explore a different theme each time, with consumerism trends in the first film, the nature of collectables in the second, and growing up and maturing out of toys in the third. Note how I specify “themes” there. There needs to be a reason as to why the script is being changed, otherwise you just end up with a film that’s equally as pointless and aimless as one that just blatantly rehashes the first film – this is why The Hangover Part II sucked, because it soullessly redid the first film with no effort, and why The Hangover Part III is equally as bad, because the switch to a pitch black action comedy felt like an idea that somebody had but never bothered to properly flesh out.
The other way is to simply build on what works. People typically don’t mind, or don’t mind as greatly, that they’re getting the same thing in a new coat of paint if the problems with the prior films are fixed, the new film has enough new ideas and spins and variations to justify its existence, and that the new instalment radiates joy – that it’s happy to be here and that everyone involved is happy to be here for reasons that don’t relate to their massive paycheques. This is why nobody – except stuffy, or admittedly more discerning, film critics/snobs – cares that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is formulaic and predictable, because each film has enough new spins and differences, as well as a cast and crew who mostly look like they are having the time of their lives, that it gets away with it.
Into this picture enters the Madagascar series, one that by its very nature is going to end up feeling formulaic. The entire premise of the series hinges on the cast never actually making it back to New York City as, once they do, you have to address that however you think is best before the series ends. As fun as the cast is, they need that drive to get back to New York, along with the inevitable realisation that they actually rather like being free animals thank you kindly, because once you work through that there is nowhere else to go. Hell, stretching it out over three full-length films is already inviting sighs of derision from more sceptical viewers.
Not to mention that, thematically, these films very much tread the exact same ground over and over and over again. Each film’s central theme is about family, and specifically Alex’s family. In Madagascar, he loses his anonymous public family but becomes closer to his surrogate family of friends. Escape 2 Africa has him drift apart from his surrogate family as he reconnects with his real and long-lost family, before closing the film by becoming equally close with both of them. Whilst Europe’s Most Wanted sees Alex discover how much his first surrogate family means to him, and replacing his anonymous public family with a second surrogate family of circus animals. (OK, admittedly it’s a bit of a stretch, but you get what I mean, hopefully.) Plus the fact that each film’s climax comes from him stepping up and assuming the leadership role that he is destined to have.
So, why is this not a problem, then? I mean, the Shrek films trod the same ground over and over, and critics, animation lovers and, eventually to a degree, viewers revolted over it. The Madagascar series becoming more and more popular, and becoming more and more critically accepted, despite doing the same thing seems to go against common sense. Why? Because it chooses Option 2 from before. Each Madagascar film is working from the same basic template but tries different things and different tacks in the hopes that something fits and to keep things fresh. The first film is a joke machine but also keeps falling back into bad DreamWorks habits so doesn’t work as well as it should, the second film went in on the ensemble nature and added the heart that was missing from the first, creating a superior if still not excellent film as a result.
The third film… well, saying that it’s a mess doesn’t even begin to properly describe it.
Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted is the moment in which this series threw off any pretence of making sense, flipped off the DreamWorks formula that it had fallen back on as a safety net in the past, and embraced its zany, madcap, cartoon (for lack of a better term) nature. The opening 20 minutes feature the penguins and the chimps trashing a Monaco hotel room, an elaborate Prince of Versailles disguise that’s also packed to the gills with technology, an interesting idea as to how close to Africa Monaco is, a ridiculous car chase, and an animal control hunter who is like a cross between a Terminator, Carmelita Fox, and a German Shepard (more on her later). It’s bonkers, it’s silly, and it’s a huge stupid amount of fun. The series seems to have finally truly found its voice!
But then our four leads stow away with an animal circus, in the hopes that their impressing of an American promoter – represented as the single most stereotypical American image possible, he even has a pet eagle – gets them a ticket back to New York. From here, the zaniness is significantly dialled back down, the heart is pushed back up and we settle into a groove that’s like a more unique version of Madagascar 2 – a film that cribbed from almost literally every animated film ever. The madcap zaniness, save for a few running gags, only resurfaces whenever the prior mentioned animal control hunter forcibly inserts herself back into a film that has no real usage for her – fitting, since she ends up operating well outside of her jurisdiction by this point and so is quite literally forcing herself into a place she no longer belongs in.
In fact, let’s not put this off any longer and just talk about Captain Chantel DuBois, already. She is, undoubtedly, the highlight of the film because Europe’s Most Wanted just lets go of the leash and lets her run about with pretty much zero ties to reality. She can break through walls simply by running at them, has back-up plans within back-up plans, breaks no sweats when escaping from prison, punches out snakes, can revive her heavily injured comrades purely through the power of overblown musical numbers, and has the kind of nutso determination that would even give Cruella de Vil pause – a comparison that almost literally every single film reviewer ever has made. She is very much like the Penguins, except that the film is able to increase the laughs it can mine from her because, unlike the Penguins, the script doesn’t call for her to be anything other than this force of nature and that mystique makes her traits all the funnier.
She’s also barely connected to the film at large. After the Monaco chase – the uproarious, delirious, ridiculous Monaco chase – she doesn’t come across the main cast again for literally another 40 minutes, and even then it’s purely to set up the pointless Third Act Misunderstanding so that we can have The All Is Lost Moment. Her presence feels unnecessary, like the writers came up with this stellar idea for a character and refused to drop her when she became pointless to the story. Yet, the film also ends up addressing this. Everybody else in the film has moved onto to other, more important and pressing issues, but DuBois is crazed and obsessive and won’t let things lie, so she wrestles control of the film back to herself even though she’s completely pointless to everyone’s current story arc.
In that sense, she could be read as a stealth parody of villains in kids’ animated films, and especially villains in prior Madagascar films – the completely superfluous presence who feels here more out of supposed necessity than anything else, only with their competency amped up to extreme proportions and their not-being-needed actually being vital to the character itself. In less capable hands, this would still make DuBois a pointless presence who ends up making the film feel unfocussed – the kind of satire that isn’t really satirical, just a self-aware example of what it’s supposedly making fun of. However, DuBois is such a ridiculous presence that she ends up feeling vital to the film as a frequent shot of barely restrained insanity to keep the pace and tone up, much like the Penguins in the first two films.
Anyways, back to my prior statement of “Madagascar 3 is a complete mess.” The reason that I say that is because under any level of thinking, the film falls apart completely. Not in terms of plot, the jumpy “we’re making it up as we go” nature of the scenarios fits the “we’re making it up as we go” travel plans of the main cast. But everything about the film itself is like a laundry list of faults. Its tone is all-over-the-place, lurching from something close to Madagascar 2’s heart-on-sleeve sincerity to deranged anything-goes joke machine – King Julian’s plot this time is that he falls in love with a tricycle riding circus bear and everything to do with it is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds. Its pacing never slows, sometimes to its detriment with it never truly letting certain events sink in. The non-Alex parts of the main cast are, once again, shuffled to the back of the deck for more time with the new characters.
It’s a conflicted film, is what I’m getting at; one that, even when it seems to have found its groove – balancing madcap mayhem with an acknowledged but not totally prevalent undercurrent of sadness – still doesn’t know what exactly it’s trying to be. One that simultaneously improves on its predecessors’ prior faults and also does nothing but repeat them over and over again. One that makes absolutely no sense and, at the same time, makes perfect sense. That’s the masterstroke, essentially; Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted is a stretched-out classic animation short. Nothing makes conventional sense, expected rules are constantly flaunted, and thinking is actively discouraged as doing so destroys the magic.
It’s hard for me to truly explain why Madagascar 3 is a better film than its prior two entries because, as I’ve just said, trying to talk about the film properly reveals it to be full of holes that you could drive a truck through, but my guess is energy. There’s genuine propulsive energy to proceedings, where every scene leads straight into the next, and what it loses in emotional heft by refusing to step off the accelerator post-title card it gains through fun and the fun kind of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Hell, that madcap pace is the reason why the critics who did enjoy it tripped over themselves to praise it.
I guess this is the point where I should mention Noah Baumbach, huh? Now, so far in this recent series of famous live-action talent stopping by DreamWorks to help out with their films, the implementations haven’t been huge DNA shifting inclusions. By that I mean, they’ve not been as hands on as Baumbach was here – del Toro came on late to Megamind and was more involved with story in Puss In Boots than anything else, whilst Roger Deakins was specifically brought on to help with lighting for How To Train Your Dragon – although they were still very important, animation being a very collaborative medium and all. By contrast, Baumbach got his hands on the script and proceeded to re-write 60 pages of it, which – since one page of a script often equates to one minute of film – is roughly two-thirds of the film, back in Summer 2010, two years prior to its release.
You may notice that I haven’t spent ages talking about how Baumbach influences the finished film, whether his voice is drowned out by that of DreamWorks, and if the film is better or worse for having him. Well, that’s because I don’t know as, probably surprising no-one considering the gaps in my film library, I have never seen a Noah Baumbach film – with the exception of his co-writing credit for Fantastic Mr. Fox – so I can’t say anything for certain at this time. What I can say is that there is certainly more quirk here, a more specific kind of quirk that feels very individualistic and auteur-ish in comparison to the typical group-written scripts of animated films. Once again, there is a sequence where DuBois heals her badly injured comrades by singing “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien” – incidentally, I never knew how much I wanted to hear Frances McDormand sing that song until it happened – and that’s a different kind of quirk than King Julian’s continued habit of singing pop songs badly.
So, as you may have gathered – both by the unfocussed nature of the piece and the fact that I gave myself three extra days to try cracking this thing – I can’t really explain why Madagascar 3 works for me since, again, it is objectively a giant undecided mess, the kind of film that wants to have its cake and eat it too and it does manage to do both but you’re really not sure how and my head now hurts. Its flaws are major but fade into the background whilst it’s running because the film is just so much damn fun and so fast as to eventually overwhelm the viewer and protect them from those flaws, some of which are deliberate – there are several instances of blatant product placement but the film does so in a way where it calls attention to how stupidly out of place it is, making it a joke in and of itself.
The public very much seemed to feel the same way, as Madagascar 3 would go on to be DreamWorks Animation’s most successful non-Shrek film ever. Domestically, it opened in first place, trouncing expected chart-topper Prometheus by nearly $10 million. It even held surprisingly strong against Brave, only tumbling down majorly once Ice Age: Continental Drift came along to poach its 6 week-old screens. It closed barely $1 million less than what How To Train Your Dragon made domestically, making it the second-best non-Shrek domestic performance for DreamWorks ever and the tenth highest grossing film domestically of 2012. “Afro Circus” may have gotten on the nerves of everyone who wasn’t 6, but you gotta admit that it served its purpose.
Overseas, the film was a frickin’ monster, more than doubling the amount it made domestically. Now, the Madagascar series has always performed well overseas, especially in Europe, and adding 3D premiums onto that just pushes things into overdrive. Number 1 debuts in Italy, Spain, Brazil, France, Russia, Germany, and The UK (those last two being especially surprising since, in typical inexplicable animation fashion, it didn’t debut there until October), strong performance in burgeoning market China, even Japan took to it and DreamWorks films usually sink like a stone there! Just like with Escape 2 Africa before it, Europe’s Most Wanted closed with a foreign total over $100 million more than its predecessor, making it the eighth highest grossing film worldwide of the year, only beaten animation-wise by the quite-literally-inexplicably-popular-overseas Ice Age series.
So, why Madagascar 3? Why this as the big foreign homerun over pretty much anything else DreamWorks have ever done? Well, first of all, you have the Madagascar brand, and people like the Madagascar brand – as well they should, they’re good movies. Mainly, however, I think that it is that unique surrealism that did it. Although there are still some specific pop culture references in here, mainly stemming from King Julian’s singing habit, they’re not the main source of humour. They never have been for the Madagascar series, not in the same way that the Shrek series is. The jokes instead come more from character interactions, slapstick and physical comedy, and just plain weirdness, which translates better overseas.
Madagascar 3 doubles down on the weirdness and the slapstick and such, which makes the humour more universal, more global, and more appreciable to non-American audiences without sliding into generic non-descript jokes that lack identity – the sequence where the guards systematically go through every prison cell escape tactic in the book is a bit that’s hilarious to quite literally everybody and feels unique and specific to Madagascar 3. That embracing of the weirdness elevates the film beyond Yet Another Talking Animal Movie and films with distinct, easily-marketable identities are near-guaranteed to do well. Throw in the emergence of 3D, the goodwill banked by the franchise, it being a trilogy-ender, and the fact that it is a genuinely great film – although good luck getting me to explain why it is – and the combination is pretty much bullet-proof.
(Side Bar, real quick: This, incidentally, is why Penguins Of Madagascar switched places with Home on DreamWorks’ release schedule. Madagascar was thought to be an impenetrable brand at home and abroad, and DreamWorks could have used a hit after the box office and financial woes that I have referred to and will continue to refer to throughout this series. It’s also why the film’s total collapse at the domestic box office and mild performance overseas was genuinely surprising and alarming for pretty much everybody everywhere.)
So, with numbers and factors like those, is it any wonder that, despite having burnt through and dealt with the franchise’s end game, Katzenberg was still prepping us all for a fourth instalment in 2018, until recent events forced his hand otherwise? If How To Train Your Dragon 2 had collapsed totally – which, in a way, it sorta did, but we will get to that – that would have left him with only one film series that he could rely on, and why not keep milking your cash cow until its udders turn black and drop off? In any case, though, that leaves Madagascar as that rare series that started out mediocre but actively improved the further on it went, which is especially surprising for an animated film. What began as a conflicted formulaic DreamWorks film would grow to embrace its weirdness and craziness, gifting it a unique voice in a landscape of films that simply poorly imitate the better competition, and the eventual somewhat begrudging respect of snobby critics.
I almost ended this by saying that Madagascar is DreamWorks’ equivalent of the Fast & Furious series, but then I realised how utterly deranged I would have sounded if I did. After all, at no point does Madagascar 1 sink to the lows of 2 Fast 2 Furious and at no point does any entry in this series, even my favourite Penguins of Madagascar, reach the heights of Fast Five. The spirit of the comparison is there, though.
We are nearing the end of the Retrospective, my friends – we only have four official weeks left and one of them is devoted to TV – which means that we are going to have to deal with the troublesome state that DreamWorks Animation is currently in. In the 24 months separating next week’s film and near-enough-the-present-day, they have only had two mostly unqualifiable successes, which is a problem, since most of the films have been originals and we know how franchise-dependent DreamWorks is. This will be our through-line for the remaining few weeks, as we use our remaining films to try and answer this one simple question: what the hell happened? Next week, we begin with the one that started it all, Rise of the Guardians.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!