[Screen It]

(2008) (voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock) (PG)

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Animated Comedy: A quartet of New York zoo animals manage to escape from Madagascar, only to crash-land in an African wildlife reserve where they must contend with their various issues.
After originally being shipped off to Kenya but washing up on the shores of Madagascar after a bunch of penguins, led by Skipper (voice of TOM MCGRATH), seized control of their cargo ship, Central Park Zoo animals Alex the performing lion (voice of BEN STILLER), outspoken Marty the zebra (voice of CHRIS ROCK), hypochondriacal giraffe Melman (voice of DAVID SCHWIMMER) and the hippo of his dreams, Gloria (voice of JADA PINKETT SMITH), are prepared to fly back to New York.

With Skipper's crew of penguins -- Private (voice of CHRISTOPHER KNIGHTS), Kowalski (voice of CHRIS MILLER) and Rico -- having fixed an old plane wreck, the quartet is set for their return flight. Accompanying them are lemurs King Julien (voice of SACHA BARON COHEN) and his sidekick Maurice (voice of CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER) and hanger-on Mort (voice of ANDY RICHTER), as well as erudite chimp Mason (voice of CONRAD VERNON) and his companion Phil.

They don't get far, however, before the plane crash-lands in an African wildlife reserve, not far from where Alex's parents, Zuba (voice of BERNIC MAC) and his wife (voice of SHERRI SHEPHERD) still live, long after their son was abducted by poachers years ago. They're obviously elated by their long lost son's return, which also holds true for Zuba's longtime rival, Makunga (voice of ALEC BALDWIN), but for a different reason. Realizing Alex isn't the type of lion who can pass the pride's ritual of passage, Makunga sees that as his chance of becoming the leader.

At the same time, Melman continues to long secretly for Gloria who's now drawn the attention of suave hippo Moto Moto (voice of WILL.I.AM), while Marty is dejected to learn that he's no longer unique as he's the spitting image of the reserve's other zebras. Meanwhile, resourceful senior citizen Nana (voice of ELISA GABRIELLI) leads a band of stranded safari tourists through the savanna, prepared to hunt some animals in order to survive. As all of that and more occurs, the quartet of zoo animals must contend with their various issues.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
While it's a noble cause when people strive to return non-domesticated animals to the wild, no one ever asks the critters if that's what they want. Granted, aside from Dr. Doolittle, Tarzan and/or so-called animal psychics (who never seem to "read" that dogs and cats are really "saying" that they want to bite and/or scratch the eyes out of such charlatans), such human to animal (or vice-versa) conversation is implausible, and thus the wishes and/or desires of said freed creatures are never known.

That is, except in movies -- especially ones deemed as family friendly -- where the animals have been anthropomorphized, which means you usually can't get them to shut up. Such was the case in "Madagascar," the 2005 animated comedy where a lion, zebra, giraffe and hippo ended up in the title island country, albeit not of their own choosing or that of their human handlers.

Yet, despite now being free in something resembling their native lands, the foursome desires to return to their home at New York's Central Park Zoo. But placing their return trip in the hands of a bunch of eager but sometimes blindly zany penguins results in them crash-landing in their real native homeland of Africa where they run smack dab into a subplot obviously inspired by, borrowed and/or stolen from the alpha male of animated animal movies, "The Lion King."

The result is "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," the rare sequel that's actually a bit better than its predecessor, even taking into account that lifted material and fact that the offering doesn't veer far from the formula that made the original a surprise hit.

The characters -- voiced by the returning cast of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith -- reprise and build on their various traits and/or neuroses introduced the first time around, and again would end up spending a lot of nickels getting psychiatric help from "The Peanuts" Lucy had she been included in the proceedings.

Considering the sheer number of animated characters present, that wouldn't have been surprising, but then again perhaps she grew up into the testy and martial arts proficient "Nana" whose cameo role in the first film (where she beat up Stiller's lion) has been expanded here. And the plethora of supporting characters -- vocally played by the like of Sacha Baron Cohen and Tom McGrath, among others -- once again steal the show and deliver some of the film's best funny bits, just like last time.

The returning filmmakers -- writers/directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath -- along with new writer addition Etan Cohen clearly maintain the original's pedal to the metal pacing, both in terms of the story moving forward as well as delivering the plethora of visual and verbal jokes and related, zany antics.

While kids (and especially fans of the original) will obviously eat up such offerings, the rapid fire approach and accompanying outlandish behavior might grow tiresome for some adult viewers. That said, I found it more fun than the first time around, and the unique animation style has actually grown on me.

My only real complaint is the similarity to "The Lion King" regarding the subplot featuring Alec Baldwin voicing a conniving lion rival to Alex's father (voiced by the late Bernie Mac). Granted, it's not verbatim lifting, but it's close enough that it's the one thing that doesn't feel unique to this series, and while it has its share of goofiness, its more dramatic nature grates against the rest of the comedy.

Even so, that's not enough to lessen the entertainment value of what's offered. Funnier, more enjoyable and certainly more polished than its predecessor, "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed October 23, 2008 / Posted November 7, 2008

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