- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

Between the tin-eared “Robots” and the strained “Shark Tale,” it would be easy to lose faith in the power of computer-generated animation. Along comes “Madagascar,” and that faith is reborn. “Madagascar” touches all the genre’s bases, from its pinpoint vocal choices to animation so lush it sometimes feels more real than reality.

It could be the sweetest time parents and children share at the movies this summer, and if there’s any justice, its cinematic run will carry it long into those sweltering days.

It all starts at a Manhattan zoo, a place where the animals live in total luxury. That isn’t enough for Marty the zebra (Chris Rock, oddly enough giving his best screen performance to date). He’s turning 10, and he still doesn’t know if he’s black with white stripes, or white with black stripes. His existential search takes him out of the zoo and into the big city, where his three buddies Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) track him down.

Their escape riles some animal rights alarmists, which buys them a one-way ticket to a Kenyan zoo. Their boat hits some rocky seas, and their crates fall overboard, washing up on a Madagascar beach.

Suddenly, the wilderness Marty longed for is but a few sand hills away.

They meet some new friends in the jungle, a society of lemurs led by a kingly figure (Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Ali G) who tries to use the strangers to scare away jungle predators.

But Marty and company aren’t sure what to make of their true roots.

“Madagascar’s” first half hour is near perfection, a cavalcade of precise comic shtick and endearing supporting players. A quartet of penguins, trying to burrow to freedom, supply such a steady stream of giggles one wishes for a spinoff as soon as possible.

Once the main characters settle into the wild, the film’s charm starts to wane. More troubling is the darker theme that Alex’s bestial side emerges once he’s back in the wild. That may take some explaining for the wee ones, who won’t understand why Marty suddenly looks so … tasty to Alex.

Like the best of its genre, “Madagascar” is rich in cultural parodies that will tickle adult sensibilities. Children will be delighted by the rest.

The gags, no matter the style, rarely detract from the story or its characters. Instead, they either add to them or help nudge the story along.

Mr. Stiller’s King of the Jungle sheds some of his neurotic tics while retaining the actor’s inherent comic timing. Best of all is Mr. Schwimmer’s Melman, a hypochondriac who generates a laugh nearly every time he opens his mouth.

“Madagascar” even gets the music right, turning “Stayin’ Alive” into a reason for Marty to strut down a New York street with John Travolta-esque cool and using the dance-friendly “I Like to Move it, Move it” to enliven the latter reels.

Let’s hope “Madagascar” reverses the downward trend in computer generated cartoons. Both children and adults need a good reason to escape the heat together this summer.

***1/2

TITLE: “Madagascar”

RATING: PG (Excretory humor, comic violence and a potentially frightening subplot involving one character turning to feed on another)

CREDITS: Directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath. Produced by Mireille Soria. Written by Mark Burton, Billy Frolick and Tom McGrath.

RUNNING TIME: 86 minutes

WEB SITE: www.madagascar-themovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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