Tag Archives: Tom McGrath

Megamind

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.


megamind 221] Megamind (5th November 2010)

Budget: $130 million

Gross: $321,885,765

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 72%

2010 was a very successful year for feature-length animation.  Now, when one looks at the year in animated film and tries to determine how good of a year it was, they cannot just cast their eye in the direction of the Disney-DreamWorks-Pixar circle trust and judge it solely from there.  I mean, they can and it should factor in to a large percentage of that – they are the biggest animation companies in the Western world at the moment, after all – but the true indicator of just how successful a year it has been for animation comes from the efforts of other studios and how their works hold up qualitatively and financially which, for 2010, was rather well indeed.

In terms of the big three, DreamWorks put out three solid hits – How To Train Your Dragon, Shrek Forever After, Megamind (sort of, we’ll get to that) – two of which were creative and critical successes, whilst Disney properly kick-started their second renaissance with the financial smash of critical hit Tangled, and Pixar put out Toy Story 3 so I really don’t need to go into detail with that.  They carried the year very well, but there was activity outside of those.  My Dog Tulip was an indie darling that did decent box office numbers, Zack Snyder tried to make an ambitious and dark fantasy epic with Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole that did very well overseas, Alpha & Omega is a dog turd in a bucket made out of Xenomorph piss but made enough money to justify a direct-to-DVD series that’s still inexplicably going to this day.

Oh, yeah, and Despicable Me happened.

In fact, I’m gonna go ahead right now and state this for the record: as a fan of the Despicable Me series overall, I still don’t quite get why Despicable Me was the one that broke through into the mainstream public consciousness.  Every year, of the tens of animated films that get released into the wild by studios that aren’t part of that circle trust I previously mentioned, one breaks through into mainstream acceptance and becomes the next big franchise.  It’s a recent thing, and some years end up having that big film come from DreamWorks anyway, but it is a thing nonetheless – Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs in 2009, Despicable Me in 2010, Rango and Rio in 2011, Hotel Transylvania in 2012, The Croods in 2013 (because pretty much everything else was a sequel), and The Lego Movie in 2014.

Now, in fairness, Despicable Me is a good film – although I never found it to be great and vastly prefer the better paced, better structured, wackier, funnier, more surprisingly heartfelt and just plain better Despicable Me 2 – and I much prefer it being the breakout in a rather quiet year than f*cking Alpha & Omega, but I’ve never fully gotten why.  The first film is flawed – a lot of the non-physical gags don’t land, the heart isn’t quite earned, and many of the voice performances are just awful – and forgettable, yet it became the film that everybody went back to again and again and again.  My best guess is the same as my guess for why Madagascar became a hit: the funny comic relief side characters (Penguins in Madagascar, Minions in Despicable Me) and the collective belief that a sequel will fully realise the potential that is frequently hinted at but never quite reached.

Despicable Me, for those not in the know, follows an ineffectual supervillain who wishes to become the most evilest supervillain of them all, but has a change of heart and becomes a hero of sorts after he lets women into his personal life and discovers that, deep down, he actually has real feelings and cares about other people that are not his minions or his steadfastly loyal sidekick.  Megamind, for those not in the know, follows an ineffectual supervillain who wishes to become the most evilest supervillain of them all, but has a change of heart and becomes a hero of sorts after he lets a woman into his personal life and discovers that, deep down, he actually has real feelings and cares about other people that are not his minions or his steadfastly loyal sidekick.

Can you see why Megamind was doomed from the get-go?

Now, I am not saying that Megamind and Despicable Me ripped one another off.  Of course I’m not, animation lead times are hellish and whichever one of these films came out first would have had the advantage of not being seen as a rip-off of the other.  What I am saying, is that an uninformed public may end up seeing it that way and they’re unlikely to turn up for a second go-around if they look too similar to one another.  DreamWorks had gotten away with it before with Antz and Shark Tale, but both of those looked very distinct from the films they were going up against, Antz came first and Shark Tale was a year removed from Finding Nemo.  In a darkly funny way, being late to the punch and suffering for it, this is basically karma finally coming for DreamWorks Animation.

Like it or not, Despicable Me will have been at least partially responsible for the lower-than-average gross for Megamind.  It may not have been such a problem if Despicable Me wasn’t A Thing, but it was A Thing and it ended up being a breath of fresh air in the animated medium – I’m assuming, my guess being that it was an animated comedy with real heart and few pop culture references – and so Megamind ended up suffering in comparison in the public eye.  After all, here was a DreamWorks film.  The third in a year, no less!  It had been 9 years since the first Shrek and, since most of the animation medium had decided to poorly copy that film’s way of doing things, people were tired of the DreamWorks formula by this point.

The film opened OK, first place and $46 million is nothing to sniff at, but was still somewhat below par for a DreamWorks film with 3D bells and whistles – especially since 66% of its opening weekend came from 3D showings at the height of the 3D craze.  It held well in weekend no. 2, only slipping 37% and beating off Unstoppable which was a real movie that existed and not some kind of amazingly stupid fever dream we collectively had, but any hopes of a long run on the chart were collectively dashed by four words that sent the entire box office sprinting for cover: Deathly Hallows, Part 1.  The combination of that opening in Week 3 and Disney’s Tangled opening in Week 4 signalled a very swift end to Megamind’s domestic box office fortunes; it dropped out after Week 6.

Considering that one-two punch, one would wonder why DreamWorks didn’t simply push the release date forward a bit, perhaps into October.  Problem is, DreamWorks were very much in a “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” situation with Megamind.  Too early and Despicable Me would be too fresh in the audience’s minds and that would harm Megamind’s box office even more.  Too late and they’d have to push it into January/February of 2011, the cinematic dead zone and creating the problem of having three films coming out in relatively close proximity to one another in 2011; essentially postponing the burnout problem another 12 months.  Plus, in October, a very large number of 3D screens were taken by Jackass 3D and Katzenberg’s very public uproar over the competition foisted upon How To Train Your Dragon back in March probably convinced him to keep schtum this time.

So it didn’t do particularly great in the US.  Problem is that overseas grosses weren’t particularly great, either.  DreamWorks films that don’t do great financially domestically typically, not always but typically, make up for that with very strong overseas sales – Penguins Of Madagascar has crashed and burned domestically (it won’t even cross $80 million by the time it finally closes) but is at least trying to force its way into profitability with a slow but strong overseas performance.  Megamind, for whatever reason, never managed to do that.  Therefore, the film, although not a bomb, is one of the lower grossing entries into the more recent DreamWorks canon – although that bar keeps getting lowered/raised with each passing entry, to be frank.

Despicable Me is certainly one reason, three DreamWorks films in one year is definitely another (I have talked before about the DreamWorks release plan so I won’t repeat myself), and the fact that it looked very much like The DreamWorks Movie certainly didn’t help matters.  In fact, after having viewed the film and tweeted out how I prefer it to Despicable Me 1 – like you’re surprised, if you’ve followed this series or any of my writings on this site, you saw this coming – a friend of mine replied with surprise at my position as they found it to be “the most DreamWorks-ass movie they’ve ever made.”  And I am inclined to agree with that statement, name a DreamWorks Animation trope – pop culture references, expensive sounding licensed soundtrack, characters that resemble their voice actors more than a little too much, a Dance Party Ending – and it probably shows up here at some point.

But, crucially, Megamind also perfectly encapsulates just how far DreamWorks Animation had come since their commonly accepted dark age.  See, Megamind has a fair bit going on in it.  The DreamWorks of old would have taken its superhero parody premise, filled in the blank spaces with the bare minimum of character work and pop culture references, and then called it a day.  Megamind instead fills its blanks with the bare minimum of pop culture references – the bigger ones being relevant to the genre the film is occasionally parodying and therefore making sense – a very good amount of character work, a surprising amount of heart, and a vicious and relevant deconstruction of the Dogged Yet Determined Nice Guy trope.  It’s not original, Christ no, but it is highly entertaining and, as I have said before, films don’t have to be original to be great.

Now, I am going to be frank, a part of me did sigh dejectedly when Roxie ended up not being the one who gets forcibly injected with the hero serum – after all, DreamWorks have a (previously discussed) female problem and, if this was pulled off well (because it could also have gone so horribly wrong), giving Roxie powers and making her Megamind’s self-created nemesis would have provided so many potentially brilliant plotlines.  However, the serum going to Hal allows Megamind to touch on its best theme: loudly telling young boys that they are entitled to jack sh*t when it comes to women.

What do the movies typically teach us?  The hero gets the girl.  The good guy gets the girl.  The dogged nice guy is rewarded for his patience and persistence by getting the girl.  If your soulmate is currently with the wrong guy, a lunky meathead who is cool and awesome whilst you’re a sad lonely nerd, she will eventually realise that it should have been you all along and will come around if you just don’t stop trying to convince her.  This is why “friendzoning” is a thing.  We are very much a culture of entitlement, men are entitled to their dream girl and the guy that gets in the way of that is a horrible jock asshole and any girl who rejects you just doesn’t realise how special you are, despite just how f*cking abhorrent that entire philosophy is, and it’s why tragic events like the Isla Vita massacre end up happening.

So Megamind gets across just how non-OK that is by making Hal the villain.  Without powers, his constant hitting on Roxie even long after she has made it quite clear that she is not interested is an annoyance and creepy, but not especially threatening since he can’t do anything about it.  With powers, his entitlement overtakes his being and he now has the means with which to actually lash out at the world when everything he has been promised isn’t dropped into his lap.  Roxie is in love with Bernard – or, at least, who she thinks is Bernard, we’ll get back to that in a minute – and Hal suddenly sprouting powers and pecs does not cause her libido to suddenly gain feelings for him.  She wasn’t interested in him before because he was rather creepy and overly forward and unable to let the crush go, and she’s not interested in him now since all the powers have done is give him the strength to act on those creepy and overly forward impulses.  Her rejection is what spurs him to turn evil, but it’s clear that he would have gone this way at some point regardless of how things turned out with Roxie.

To put it another way: a big message of a big expensive animated kids’ movie aimed at young boys is “No means no.  Always.  No exceptions.  You aren’t entitled to sh*t.”  Ain’t that something rather amazing?

This all being said, Megamind does very much risk undercutting this message in three ways.  1] There are quite a few times, pre-powers, where Hal’s creepy hitting on Roxie is played more for laughs than “this is not OK”-ness.  I’m not 100% certain about this, because I’m not sure how much I’m projecting my own beliefs onto this movie and how much is the film mashing that “not OK” button (all of its prior attempts at getting jokes from that fall flat for me, you see, so I’m not certain how much of the film is properly playing it for laughs), but it’s there nonetheless.  2] The finale still ends with Megamind himself having won Roxie after proving himself to be a nice guy hero deep down, although that problem is somewhat nipped by a large chunk of the movie being devoted to showing the two of them mutually falling in love with each other.  Mind, that also brings us to…

…3] much of that romance occurs with Megamind tricking Roxie into believing that he is somebody else, with him taking the form of Bernard.  No matter how real and genuinely touching the rest of their relationship is built on, there’s still the issue of the fact that Megamind built much of his relationship with Roxie on a lie.  A lie that he is rewarded for, even after the jig is revealed and Roxie reacts understandably betrayed and angry, by getting the girl after rescuing her from Hal/Titan.  Now, this whole plotline and development isn’t exactly something made up specifically for Megamind, the film is a parody of comic books and superheroes and this kind of thing crops up there too (I’m assuming) so it carries problematic undertones anywhere (see also: any plotline that involves love potions of any kind), but those uncomfortable undertones still sit there regardless.

Yet, I honestly don’t find them a film-killer, like they should be, and I put that all down to the film’s incredibly strong character work.  The relationship between Megamind and Roxie feels very real, very honest, very spontaneous.  Although the film makes it somewhat clear from the outset that the two are going to end up together – this is a film, after all, apparently only Hayao Miyazaki understands that the lead man and the lead woman don’t need to get together by the rolling of the end credits – this isn’t apparent to the characters.  Megamind doesn’t kidnap Roxie at the outset because he has secret deep-down feelings for her, the film repeatedly makes it very clear that he’s only doing that because that’s what villains are supposed to do and he views her as somewhat of an annoyance – crucially, the film itself doesn’t, which is why she’s a very entertaining and interesting character despite being shunted into the two roles that women are apparently supposed to play in blockbuster action films.

The first time Megamind properly hangs out with Roxie, as in not keeping himself from being discovered by her, it’s not even in a romantic context.  Or, at least, an openly romantic one.  It starts very much as a position of his enjoying her company and wishing to spend more time with her, and his not realising that the true extent of his affections for her being love until later.  Vice versa for Roxie, it’s very much two friends slowly realising that they have a deeper bond than just being friends and it’s that naturalness and realness that’s able to transcend the somewhat… iffy details surrounding it.  For me, at least.  No, it doesn’t much help the film’s case that a good chunk of this is dealt with in one Electric Light Orchestra backed montage, but the relationship between the two is very much the centre and backbone of the movie and the execution of everything surrounding that is why it all still works.

See, Megamind’s arc feels natural.  It feels sincere.  He may seem like he’s deciding to become a hero because of the love of a woman, but the reality is that that’s only one part of it.  For one, he never really wanted to become a villain in the first place, society bullied him into it because school kids are the f*cking worst.  For two, there’s a good 10 to 15 minute stretch where the film loudly announces the fact that Megamind only got the fun out of the chase and actually finds the non-chase parts of villainy rather boring.  And for three, his first instinct when he sees Titan running off the rails is to try and shut down his creation before it gets further out of control, proving that he’s always had good inside of him somewhere.  The love of Roxie is a catalyst for that realisation of his change, but it’s not the sole reason and that’s why his arc feels genuine.  There’s more to it, it’s built up over time, and where he ends up personally when the film closes makes sense based on what the film has shown us about him earlier.  By contrast, Despicable Me’s shift in Gru’s character feels forced and ham-handed, arriving suddenly because the plot demands it and only really coming from the three girls – the only real foreshadowing coming from Gru not treating his Minions like garbage.

That’s why Megamind’s heart hits for me whilst Despicable Me’s does not, and why I prefer the former to the latter.  Megamind has issues – the ratio of good jokes to “ugh” jokes is slightly less one-sided than I’d like it to be, animation quality is alright but not outstanding, art style and character designs are honestly really generic, there are no real “Wow!” stand-out moments – but its heart is in the right place and its heart works gangbusters.  A joke machine is fine, but that means that a prolonged stretch of time where the jokes aren’t firing on all cylinders exposes the weaknesses in the rest of your film.  Megamind, however, has stuff going on under the surface – mostly stuff that has been done before, with the exception of that whole entitlement angle, but it’s all very well executed in any case – and its emotional centre always feels genuine which means it tugs my heartstrings more than Despicable Me 1 did.

Also, that moment just before the title card where the studio version of George Thorogood & The Destroyers’ “Bad To The Bone” seamlessly transitions into a glorious orchestral version of said tune is brilliant and makes up for every mediocre-to-bad usage of that song for at least the last decade.  What can I say?  I’m a simple man of simple pleasures.


Megamind was a somewhat successful film critically and financially, although not the runaway that How To Train Your Dragon (critically) and Shrek Forever After (financially) had been.  Of 2010’s DreamWorks Animation releases, it’s likely that the company regard it as the black sheep of the group, although the film does have its fans.  Their next film, the first of two for 2011, would cement the standing of their third big film franchise, wow the critics, kill the foreign box office, and baffle everybody when, much like with How To Train Your Dragon and its first instalment, it was passed over for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.  Next week, it’s Kung Fu Panda 2.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch can taste the bright lights but he won’t get them for free.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Penguins Of Madagascar

Very funny, ludicrous amounts of fun, and with a surprising injection of just the right amount of heart, Penguins Of Madagascar does right by its title characters.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

penguins 2I’m telling you right now, I don’t ever want to hit an age or level of jadedness as a film critic where I don’t find films like Penguins Of Madagascar to be absolutely wonderful.  If you’ve been following along with this website over the past year, you will have witnessed my journey through the year’s animated releases and seen me find many of them… lacking, let’s put it that way.  I realise that I can come off as unnecessarily harsh, but – as mentioned in my review of The Nut Job – I judge harshly because I care.  I care deeply and I want animated films to try, to try and be more than a sinkhole for parents’ money.  They can reach farther, try harder, tell grand stories about the human condition…

…or they can be Penguins Of Madagascar.  Look, Penguins Of Madagascar does not reinvent any wheels, it does not push any boundaries, it does not attempt to dazzle the eyes with outstanding visuals, it does not try and make any bold statements or messages you won’t have heard from a million animated films beforehand.  It knows this and it’s consciously not trying to do those things.  What separates Penguins Of Madagascar from your Nut Jobs and your Planes and your House Of Magics is fun.  Real fun.  Penguins’ mission, above all else, is to be tonnes of palpable fun.  This is lightweight stuff, but it’s not soulless stuff.  There is effort and attention and love here; a desire to create real fun.

Or, to put it another way, it’s the difference between Crank 2: High Voltage and a crappy Steven Seagal vehicle, between The Avengers and Transformers, between The Hunger Games and Divergent.  One is farted out with the sole intention of box office dollars, the other knows exactly what it wants to be and goes about fulfilling that ambition and intention with style, energy, affection and sheer stick-to-it-iveness.

Based on the spin-off TV series of almost the same name but set in the timeline of the films – if this sounds confusing, fret not as the film’s attitude towards this mishmash is encapsulated perfectly by the kid-focussed prologue being dated as “Some Years Ago” – Penguins follows the scene-stealing Penguins from the Madagascar series.  There’s Skipper (Tom McGrath) – the leader who is committed to his team and doesn’t like his authority being questioned – Kowalski (Chris Miller) – the brains of the outfit and a propensity for bluntness – Rico (Conrad Vernon) – the near-silent and crazed demolitions expert – and Private (Christopher Knights) – a lone egg the rest of the team rescued and welcomed into the group as one of their own, and who wishes to be seen as a valued member of the team.

On the eve of the final performance from Madagascar 3, the Penguins choose to celebrate Private’s 10th birthday by breaking into Fort Knox and treating him to a packet of Cheese Dibbles.  The event turns out to be a trap, however, and the team are captured by the evil octopus Dave (John Malkovich) – who also moonlights as a human scientist named Dr. Octavious Brine, it’s nicely ridiculous and genuinely rather a bit creepy – who, fuelled by years of resentment of being overshadowed by cute and cuddly penguins that started when our lead quartet were first installed at Central Park Zoo, has built a penguin-focussed super-weapon with evil intentions.  The Penguins resolve to take Dave down, but end up having proceedings complicated by the arrival of interspecies task force The North Wind – led by the egotistical glory-hogging Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch).

The plot is really not any more complicated than that and all of the expected beats are hit at the appropriate times.  Certain scenes are more than a little forced, especially the attempts at book-ending the film, but it still all works because these beats are used as jumping off points for jokes, fun and heart.  The obvious scenes – the tension between the two teams, The All Is Lost Moment, the point where Private steps up – are executed with genuine sincerity, the feeling that these scenes have been used because they are what best helps and best fits the story rather than obligation or “this is what we need to do in order to print money”.

That is not to say that Penguins Of Madagascar is overly serious.  In fact, quite the opposite.  This is silly, light-hearted, fast-paced nonsense.  But the film is serious in its desire to entertain.  Hence why it goes all out in the action sequences.  A gondola chase in Venice takes a sudden detour on land, the opening rescue of Private’s egg moves with speed and high energy, whilst the final setpiece shrinks the scale and minimises the carnage but still feels noticeably climactic and high-stakes.  The standout, though, is an alternately hysterical and technically jaw-dropping one-take sequence in which the Penguins make a sudden exit from a cargo plane taking them to an assigned safe-house and attempt to find a different ride or a safe landing.  It’s crazed and fast and incredibly fun, which sums up the film’s overall feel, to be honest.  Pure, undiluted fun.

Incidentally, whilst I’m on the subject, that one-take free-fall sequence is the only time the animation truly stuck out to me.  The Madagascar art-style is very much set in stone by this point and there’s been no real majorly noticeable technical upgrade between films to make proceedings stand out.  Storyboarding and layout is decidedly unspectacular, so the film ends up sliding comfortably into the Madagascar canon without really amazing the eyeballs.  This is fine – as again, the film isn’t trying to astound the eyeballs, and visuals that are too good-looking would likely distract from the intended mood – but it does make the one-take sequence stand out even more, as the film doesn’t really try to match that kind of scale or ambition again.  It is insanely cool, mind, so try not to read that as an insult.

Anyways, as mentioned, Penguins is major amounts of fun.  The whole film carries with it this light, energetic kind-hearted feel.  The film is never mean-spirited, never overly-dark, never sacrifices its heart or nicer kinder characters for a quick laugh.  There’s clear love and affection going on here, a real desire to cut loose and have fun with the premise as much as possible.  And that fun is incredibly infectious.  From about minute number 2 – when the title cards disappear – to roughly minute 86 – after the mid-credits stinger has finished – I had this big goofy grin plastered on my face and it only wavered for the few moments where the film gets some semblance of serious.

That’s as good a segway as I can think of.  So, the heart.  Penguins has one.  It has a big one tattooed on its chest, powering proceedings.  The dynamic between the Penguins is what keeps the film going, keeps that spirit up.  The group are always true companions with one another and this fact is constantly underlined and reinforced.  The main conflict of the film – which is not Dave, although he is the catalyst for it, but is instead Private’s desire to be seen as more than The Cute One in the eyes of Skipper – comes from a place of genuine underestimation and obliviousness, rather than meanness, which is precisely why it works.  It’s in character, at all times, and that enables the film’s final third – where said heart bursts through front and centre without overcooking or schmaltz-ifying the film – to connect way harder than it seems like it would.

Of course, though, Penguins Of Madagascar is supposed to be a comedy and what good is a comedy without good jokes?  Well, good news on that front, there are good jokes here.  Lots of good jokes.  In fact, I’m not going to undersell it, Penguins is loaded front-to-back with damn good jokes and they come at a ferocious pace with an excellent hit/miss ratio.  Of particular note is the film’s lack of reliance on pop culture references – the frequent DreamWorks fall-back during their darker days.  Here, they are limited to one running gag where Dave names his subordinates in such a way that shouting combinations of names in quick succession equals names of actors.  Now, this is the same gag that Escape From Planet Earth did earlier in the year (much to my derision), but the film stretches this to its absolute limits until the joke becomes a joke itself – “Kevin!  Bake on!  We’re going to need that victory cake!”  I mean, they’re still major groaners, but at least there’s meaning behind them besides, “Reference!  Laugh!”

Other than that, the jokes are of the ridiculous silliness variety, albeit silliness rooted in character work.  There’s no random silliness for random silliness’ sake.  The “River dance!” gag is based on the Penguins believing Shanghai to be Dublin, for example, whilst Dave’s attempt at a video call works both on the base level – the increasing frustration of the team, the mundanity of the situation – and a character level – the guy may be competent with evil plans but he is utterly useless at pretty much everything else – and there are a pair of gags in the film’s final third involving The North Wind and a giant explosion that work extra-well because of Classified’s prior characterisation.  There is also a bunch of toilet humour, mostly in the form of pure groaners, but the film’s rapid-fire pace ensures that a gag that doesn’t work will be followed up by five or so that do soon after.

Also, the film openly calls out how irritating “I Like To Move It” and “Afro Circus” are during our first present-day scene, and I am perfectly fine with pandering when its aimed at me and completely deserved.

Since Penguins Of Madagascar is primarily a comedy, I’m resisting awarding it top five-star honours for now – because pure comedies, ones like this, I also judge on how a second viewing treats them – but I can still comfortably place this film in the highest echelons of the year’s animated films.  If The Lego Movie is at the top of the pile, and The Nut Job resides in Sub-Basement 5, then Penguins is currently sharing the number 2 slot with My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks and that number 2 slot is just a whisker away from The Lego Movie.  This is an incredibly funny, incredibly fun, surprisingly heartfelt animated film, and living proof that not aiming for the stars does not automatically mean “cheap creatively-bankrupt piece of crap” and does not mean that trying is optional.

2014 has been a really miserable and disappointing year for animated features.  Penguins Of Madagascar proves that we can have it better and that we don’t need to re-invent the wheel in the process.

Callum Petch is heading into twilight, spreading out his wings tonight.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

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.


madagascar 2 escape to africa17] Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (7th November 2008)

Budget: $150 million

Gross: $602,308,178

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 KingMany 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!

Callum Petch can’t realise why he’s living alone.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Madagascar

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.


madagascar10] Madagascar (27th May 2005)

Budget: $75 million

Gross: $532,680,671

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 55%

2004 was a pivotal year in Western feature-length animation.  It’s basically the point where numerous little ideas and theories that people had with regards to successful films of the medium were validated near-totally, and where the stage was set for pretty much the rest of the decade.  Maybe even the century if you believe the medium still hasn’t moved past them yet (although it has, mostly).  Yet I gave pretty much no column space to this crucial year in the past two weeks.  The reasons are two-fold: the first is that Shrek 2 and Shark Tale had way too much to break down with regards to their constructions and failings to find spare time to focus on the medium’s history, the second is that 2005, the first year after the new order takes effect, is a great place to start looking at 2004.

In other words; strap in, folks, it’s time for a brief history lesson!

So, 2004 was the year in which traditional feature animation breathed its last gasp before finally expiring.  It was the year in which Disney released what was planned to be their final traditionally-animated film, the abysmal Home On The Range, and it bombed spectacularly (a worldwide total of $103 million against a budget of $110 million).  The failure of their other animated features during the decade (with the exception of Lilo & Stitch) had convinced them that that aspect of the medium was done; and when Disney says that something is beyond hope, you’d better believe that everyone else is going to sit up, listen, and follow their lead.  The year’s only other traditionally-animated feature made in the West was the rather successful The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, and you can pretty much guarantee that everyone chalked that up to the built-in fan base of the TV show more than anything else.  In 2005, there was one traditionally-animated feature film released in cinemas, Pooh’s Heffalump Movie.  That part of the medium was officially abandoned.

Instead, as you may have gathered, 2004 was the year of DreamWorks Animation.  Pixar may have released The Incredibles to glowing financial and critical success, but DreamWorks released Shrek 2, which was also critically acclaimed and became the highest grossing film of the year.  And though Shark Tale would slot very comfortably behind The Incredibles, and have faded from most people’s memories since its release, it still made a lot of money.  It made a heck of a lot of money, and it did it by following the Shrek formula (or, more accurately, the Shrek formula but stripped of the heart and sincerity that made Shrek resonate with viewers).  This was DreamWorks’ third big hit during the decade, two in the same year too, and it proved that you could apply the (mistaken) Shrek formula to non-Shrek films and make some serious money out of it.  Hence why 2007 would bring us Surf’s Up and 2006 inflicted Barnyard upon the world.

Meanwhile, 2005 was the year in which those who had seen the success of the first Shrek and hadn’t sat on their hands waiting to see if the formula for success was going to be universal or just a one-off, began to flood the market with their attempts at cashing in on that prospective money pile.  Although it wouldn’t hit the US until a year later, and with a localised redub that I hear made things even worse, the UK got themselves a gritty reboot of lovable cult French animated series The Magic Roundabout, with villains and Matrix parodies and terrible covers of Kinks songs and goddamn Robbie Williams (yes, the singer) as Dougal, that they didn’t ask for.  Hoodwinked! tried to combine Shrek style humour with a mystery genre and a Pulp Fiction approach to timeline hopping, and brought in modest returns.  And then, although this was just as much Disney trying to prove that they didn’t need Pixar should their contract renegotiations go south as it was them desperately trying to stay relevant, there was Chicken Little.  I will not waste any more words referring to Chicken Little.

2006 would be the year in which these effects would become pretty much permanent, and naturally we’ll come to that in two weeks, so that makes 2005 the year of transition, as everyone adapted to the new landscape that DreamWorks Animation had genuinely wrought.  Well, what of DreamWorks?  How did they take 2005, their first full year as a separate and publically traded entity?  Rather a lot like 2004, to be frank.  2004 began the release schedule plan of two films from the company a year, released at opposite ends of the year, most likely for maximum canvassing of prospective dollars and to avoid over-exposure of the brand, and 2005 continued that in earnest with Madagascar and Aardman’s first film since Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit (we’ll get to that next week).  Whilst neither ended up having Shrek 2’s level of success, both were number 1 films, both broke the top 50 films of the year worldwide (Madagascar at #6, Wallace & Gromit at #21), and both ended up as part of very successful franchises that are still going strong today.  They even mirrored 2004 critically, too, with one film falling flat and the other film receiving a tonne of acclaim.

Today, we’re focussing on the one that fell flat.

Although it scored much higher than Shark Tale, Madagascar didn’t really connect with critics; the damning phrase “fun for kids… not much appeal for parents” being applied frequently.  Many found issue with the gags, which were either too low-brow or too pop culture-oriented.  Several found the premise ludicrous, one outlet saying that it is “pathetically ignorant” and spent an entire paragraph tearing it to shreds for not sticking to some semblance of reality.  A repeated thought expressed involved the belief that the quality of the animation didn’t make up for the lack of story or emotional centre.  Mostly, though, critics just found it too average to recommend or dismiss.  The general consensus primarily being that everyone involved could do better, the looming spectre of the superior Shrek hanging over proceedings.

The general public, predictably, didn’t give a toss.  It may not have debuted at number 1, opening the week after Star Wars Episode III would do that to you, but Madagascar rode its Memorial Day Weekend release date to a very respectable third place, just below The Longest Yard (the public still loved Adam Sandler and Chris Rock in 2005, let’s not forget), before leap-frogging the pair of them to the number 1 spot next week.  That would be the only time that it would occupy the top spot (in comparison to Shark Tale’s three-week run at the top), due to Summer 2005 being pretty damn crowded, but it still hung around the Top 10 for 8 weeks and closed as the 9th Highest Grossing Film Domestic of 2005.  Overseas, it was somehow even more successful, accounting for over 60% of the total worldwide gross.

Audiences, then, couldn’t get enough of Madagascar.  So much so that a major franchise ended up spinning off of it, one that currently encompasses two sequels with a third on the way, two holiday-themed TV specials, a spin-off television series for the penguins and a film version of that spin-off hitting theatres before this year is out.  The franchise has currently grossed $1.8 billion, is only behind Shrek, Ice Age and Toy Story in terms of highest grossing animated franchises of all-time, and is DreamWorks Animation’s other big consistent cash-cow with no signs of slowing down or letting up now (the Penguins movie may even reverse the poor year the company’s been having financially).

Unlike with Shark Tale, I can see why Madagascar caught on to the extent that it did, and not just because Pixar didn’t release a film that year.  It’s a damn good film, there’s a lot to like.  It’s not a great film, mind, and I’ll get to why it’s not in a short while, but it’s the kind of good film where one may not notice that it’s not great if they’re not 100% engaged with the film or, you know, they just don’t care.  That’s why Madagascar connected so well with kids (the unabashed target market of this one) and their half-paying attention parents, because there really isn’t much wrong with it for those who just want a good time.  I do firmly believe that kids are way smarter than most movie critics give them credit for, but I will concede that, having been one myself once, sometimes they’ll just want something fun that they don’t have to think about.

That’s what Madagascar is in its best moments, a very fun joke machine.  At the time of its release, a lot of us more animation focussed film critics were tripping over Genndy Tartakovsky’s Hotel Transylvania for bringing classic Tex Avery-style fast-paced squash-and-stretch animation into the 3D realm, but Madagascar was at least trying to ape that style a good 7 years earlier.  Unlike Shark Tale’s occasional attempts at using fast-paced animation for sudden silly visual gags (the “lunch is coming up, so I’m only going to do the bare minimum amount of frames before knocking off” version), Madagascar sticks to the manic, fast-paced animation style throughout.  Characters movie primarily in a stiff pose-to-pose manner, only becoming more fluid when the pace of the movie slows down somewhat, allowing for sudden bouts of physical violence and what have you to carry an impact without feeling jarring and out-of-place.

The film’s colour scheme is bright and breezy, often rather primary, to reflect that attempt at old-school animation.  Facial animations are wildly exaggerated and very expressive, again reflecting the “whacked out” (the animators’ words, not mine) mood of the dialogue and the film.  Character designs, meanwhile, were inspired by a cross between the real animals and caricatures of said animals, with the results turning out way better than that sounds like it would on paper.  They’re all distinct from one another and recognisable as each species, but they never fall into any uncanny valleys or look anything less than huggable (possibly because nobody tried to make them look like the people voicing them, Shark Tale).  And then there’s the little touch of having them mostly move like humans (although this mainly applies to Alex and Gloria due to the nature of their anatomies).  Instead of feeling lazy, like the animators were too bored to learn how to animate quadrupeds, it adds to their characters, being city folk lost on a wild desert island they clearly won’t survive on.

In case you hadn’t gathered, the animation works.  It’s not stand-out, attention-commanding, tear-inducing-at-the-beauty amazing, but it works for the film, it works for the style that the film goes for which, arguably, is what a film’s animation should primarily attempt to do.  In this case, it works for the rapid-fire joke machine style of Madagascar.  This is a film that comes hard and fast with gags that, for the most part, land to varying degrees of success.  The best ones are the physical gags, which play off the animation very well.  For example, look at the frequently-referenced-nowadays gag where an old lady beats up Alex.

Now, yes, the joke is that an old (possibly Russian) lady is beating up and threatening a lion, which is easy humour, but it’s the animation that sells it (especially since Ben Stiller’s voice work here is… er… we’ll get to that).  It’s not just that she is beating up Alex, it’s that she is manhandling him to an absurd degree.  The squash-and-stretch nature of the animation enhances the joke because it conveys the degree to which she is dominating the fight, the pose-to-pose nature demonstrating the ridiculousness of the situation with easy to convey stances, and the speed of the animation – all frames that would have made it overly smooth clearly got deleted – allows the joke to last precisely as long as it needs to.  Yes, I know that explaining the joke is really boring, but picking apart this particular moment allows me to easily explain why the physical humour works so well, because the animation and pacing are calculated to perfection.

Which brings me to the penguins.  I remember these four being my favourite part of the film when I was a kid, and they’re my favourite part of the film now a near-decade later.  Why?  A few simple reasons.  1) Their characters are strong.  All four of them have individual designs without them ever feeling disjointed (read: you can tell them apart and they all remain looking like penguins), whilst their personalities are similarly distinct if a bit one-dimensional – although that’s not an issue in this case.  2) The animation.  The pose-to-pose squash-and-stretch animation really does wonders for this lot; apply what I said with regards to the old lady in the last paragraph here and multiply that phrase tenfold.  3) The voice work.  Oh, man!  Tom McGrath, Chris Miller (not that one), Christopher Knights and an uncredited Jeffrey Katzenberg are near-perfect in their roles, their various line deliveries make pretty much anything gold.  Co-director Tom McGrath, especially, runs circles around the rest of the voice cast as Skipper, to such an extent that his temp tracks became the official voice for the character (we will likely address this a bit more later in the series).  If I could find a compilation of their scenes in this film, I’d embed it for you, but I can’t so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that their every scene is friggin’ hilarious.  Unless you’ve seen the film, in which case you’re probably just nodding your head in agreement right now.

I’m starting to sound really positive on Madagascar, so let’s temper this enthusiasm with the reasons why I noted that the film is only good and not great.  The first is that the voice acting is… well, it’s poor.  Not for the penguins or Mason the chimp (definitely not Mason, his sophisticated British accent is never not a delight), but the main cast are pretty terrible.  Ben Stiller is frequently too flat – I remind you of the old lady segment and how his voice makes it seem like Alex is instead being lightly annoyed by a fly – to be convincing, Chris Rock’s voice is too distinct to slip away into Marty the Zebra and, unlike Eddie Murphy in Shrek, he doesn’t invest in the character enough to make up for that fact, David Schwimmer seems more poorly directed than just plain bad (he is trying, if nothing else), whilst Jada Pinkett Smith gets nothing to do as Gloria and uses that as an excuse to not even bother trying.  It means that, whilst the film is still very funny, a lot of the verbal jokes don’t hit as hard as they should.

Speaking of those jokes, they’re at their best when they focus on physical humour and come from character work, however minor.  Sometimes, though, we are dropped into various pop culture references and their every appearance may as well have been accompanied by an orchestra of crickets.  They primarily come from music cues, too, that laziest of laugh-inducers unless done really well.  Marty’s walk through New York is backed by “Stayin’ Alive” and shot like that one Saturday Night Fever bit, most likely because everyone wasn’t confident in their one gag (Marty doing a double-take at the zebra-style shirt a female pedestrian is wearing) being sufficiently appreciated.  Then there’s the ending of the scene where the Statue of Liberty SOS torch (very much in character for the cast, adding to the ridiculousness of the joke) ends up being revealed as a reeeeally strained set-up for a G-rated reference to Planet Of The Apes that everybody had done before.

See, in those worst moments, they end up undercutting the perfectly fine joke that they’d been a feature of.  In their better moments, they’re unnecessary distractions that lessen but don’t totally kill the impact of the joke itself.  For an example of the poorer side, I point you towards King Julian’s nickname for the gang, “The New York Giants”, a pun that is a giant groan-inducer the first time it is mentioned and which only gets more groan-worthy the more times it ends up getting trotted out (although I appreciate the filmmakers trying to make it a character beat).  An example of the latter involves the reunion of Marty and Alex on the beach – the clip is embedded below – where a perfectly funny joke that would work with almost literally any other music cue has its true power kneecapped because they just had to cue up the Chariots Of Fire theme.  It’s lazy and pointless, almost purposefully kneecapping great jokes thanks to blaringly loud pop culture references the film stops to point out.

Oh, and whilst I’m pointing out flaws on the comedy side, I really don’t like King Julian and the rest of the lemurs.  Sacha Baron Cohen’s voice is distractingly flat and irritating, their jokes aren’t funny and they serve pretty much no purpose to the plot.  Seriously, they barely factor into the thing, pretty much only turning up because it would be weird to have a wild jungle without some kind of wildlife.  The Fossa threat could have been featured without needing the lemurs, as the lemurs smack really hard of Token Kid-Focussed Comic Relief; hence the legendary and really-painful to sit through “I Like To Move It” sequence, even if that was actually just an improvisation by Sacha Baron Cohen – you know, in case you were looking for reasons to vehemently dislike him.

But the true reason why Madagascar is only “good, not great” is because the film is such a joke machine that its attempts at poignancy and drama and heart don’t resonate.  Every single time that the film tries to go for something genuinely heartfelt, it undercuts the scene with a joke or a music cue.  The scene where Alex first goes feral and bites Marty should be genuinely emotional, but it’s played for awkward laughs.  The requisite sad times montage is backed by Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” which is just too on-the-nose to register as effective soundtrack dissonance, and said montage also further undercuts its attempts at sadness with some of the film’s funniest jokes.

Of course, more problematic is the fact that the cast are too one-dimensional for the attempts at drama to work.  Due to the film being a joke machine, this means that the cast take a lot of snipes and swipes at each other for the sake of laughs and very little time is spent showing them as genuine friends whose bonds are strong and worth investing in.  The start of the film attempts to do that, but then Marty gets out into New York and we descend into pure jokes, barring one scene, which is disappointing.  The jokes are often funny, don’t get me wrong, but it means that the film ends up as more disposable than it could have been and makes its few legitimate attempts at non-undercut drama ring hollow.

All this being said, I see why people really liked Madagascar, how this franchise ended up getting kick-started, and why the penguins are so popular that they’re getting a movie spin-off of their TV spin-off.  It’s a good film, the kind of good film where I would more than happily take a chance on a sequel due to the potential clearly on display in the first film; something I imagine a lot of parents used as a rationale behind purchasing tickets when the sequel came about (you know, along with “it will shut the kids up for 90 minutes”).  It doesn’t hit the heights of some of DreamWorks’ prior accomplishments, but it’s also a damn sight better than anything they released during the 12 months of 2004.  It’s fun, it’s breezy, it’s disposable, it’s good but not great and sometimes that’s all the public needs.  Plus, you know, easy-to-latch-onto catchphrases for the kids.  That always helps (drive everyone else insane so please stop doing them, filmmakers).


Madagascar continued DreamWorks’ box office streak into its second year, and although critical opinion of the company was still at an all-time low, they could at least comfort themselves from the mean words of the critics by bathing in the pool of cash, Scrooge McDuck-style, that the film ended up bringing in.  Meanwhile, Aardman Animations were putting the finishing touches to their theatrical follow-up to Chicken Run, the big-screen debut of the beloved duo that made them household names in the UK, and an animated film that many would argue is one of the finest of the decade.  Next week, we turn our attentions to Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit.

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Callum Petch puts on lipstick, the price is: what?!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!