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AT THE MOVIES: Nowhere Bound: Madagascar (**)

Toy Story started the now wildly successful trend of portraying what really goes on in the familiar parallel worlds with which we exist every day but don’t know: toys, monsters in the closet, fish in our oceans and tanks, and our fairy tales.  While it worked well with Toy Story and Finding Nemo and even Shrek 2, it doesn’t work so well with Dreamworks’ latest, Madagascar, which takes on New York’s Central Park Zoo. Like the other, more successful films, the animated characters reveal to us more about ourselves than about anything else, and in most cases it’s a beautiful thing.  In Madagascar what’s revealed goes beyond humankind and into the world of nature.  And that world is not safe for the minds of little children who are used to pink plastic bunnies and happy endings. Madagascar begins with Alex the Lion (voiced by Ben Stiller) who is the biggest attraction at the zoo.  He loves the attention, he loves the perks; like the fresh steaks he gets fed round the clock.  But his buddy Marty the Zebra (voiced by Chris Rock) is feeling a little low.  It’s dawned on him that he isn’t living in the wild any longer and he aches, longs to be where he was born to be – in the untamed natural world where zebras run free. But Alex and his other two pals, Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) believe Marty’s completely crazy; why would they give up living in New York?  Why would they give up being adored and pampered?  But alas, there’s no cheering Marty up, who figures out, with the help of some menacing penguins, how to escape. Upon discovering this disturbing news, Alex, Melman and Gloria set out to find their friend, a journey that takes them to Grand Central Station, where they almost get shot.  Animal rights activists get involved, and before they know it, they’re boxed up and shipped off to a Kenyan wildlife preserve.  On the way there, the penguins pull a mutiny, take over the ship and turn it around towards Antarctica.  This causes the other animals in their boxes to fall off the ship and wash up on the shores of Madagascar.  Suddenly, they’re in the wild.  And all they want to do is get back to New York. It sounds funny enough, but it’s a premise all dressed up with nowhere to go.  The idea of animals debating whether to be in the zoo or the wild is an interesting one, and to take it a step further, as the film does — what happens when a lion and a zebra (“friends” at the zoo) confront each other in the wild?  One becomes hunter and one pray. Unfortunately, a cute, cuddly lion becoming a ferocious predator doesn’t play so well with the young’uns.  In fact, there isn’t much about the way animals really live in the “wild” that can be tied up in a neat little bow and delivered as palatable children’s fare.   Starving, breeding, hunting, living and dying the hard way – it’s summed up best by the Central Park penguins, who finally make it to Antarctica, stand in the bitter, chilly snow and announce, “Well, this sucks.” This is the point of Madagascar: the civilized world is a far better place, and nice work if you can get it.  While this and other minor elements of the film work, the story as a whole does not.  It seems to be one long set up for another, bigger story that never gets off the ground. Many of the minor characters in the film are funnier than the leads – the penguins, for instance, steal the show.  And there is an ever-so-brief appearance by some chimpanzee intellectuals who are smart but essentially useless.  As to the lead animals, none of their characters have arcs – they start and end in one place as one type – neurotic, funny, tough — but they don’t have problems to solve, and they don’t change over the course of the movie.  And thus, this ensemble piece goes nowhere fast.

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