By the time a major or minor Hollywood studio releases the third entry in an unplanned trilogy or semi-planned series, it’s usually just a last-gasp money-grab. Exceptions exist, of course, but the rule of diminishing returns for sequels, prequels, remakes, and reboots exists for a reason too.

Luckily, DreamWorks Animation’s third entry in the all-but-forgotten Madagascar series, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, falls squarely on the exception side of the diminishing returns rule. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted offers an overabundance of narrative and visual surprises. At a little over ninety minutes, it’s perfectly paced. It’s also filled with inventive sight gags, (mostly) pop-culture-free verbal humor, and the most imaginative visuals this side of Pixar. In short, it’s a (near) perfect family film.

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted finds the series’ central hero, Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller), an anthropomorphic lion, still pining away for his Central Park Zoo home in New York City. While his closest friends, Marty (Chris Rock), a hyper-active zebra, Melman (David Schwimmer), a neurotic giraffe, Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith), a sassy, forthright hippo, haven’t left Alex’s side, but Alex’s parents are missing in action. Then again, it’s almost as if almost everything related to Madagascar 2: Escape to Africa never happened or doesn’t exist (with one plot-related exception). Instead, co-directors Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon assume, probably correctly, that the intended audience (i.e., preteens) doesn’t remember the earlier, admittedly forgettable, entry or maybe just doesn’t care about Madagascar 2.

Alex decides to convert his homesickness into action. The group’s sometime allies, a four-penguin squad run like a military operation, have left the warm climes of Africa for Monte Carlo on their makeshift plane. They have plans of their own and it includes winning big in Monte Carlo’s casinos and living relative lives of luxury. The first act ends with Alex, Marty, Melman, Gloria, and King Julien XIII (Sacha Baron Cohen), a fast-talking, mischief-making lemur with a Napoleonic complex, journeying to Monte Carlo by sea in order to convince the wayward penguins to fly them back to Manhattan. Plans go predictably sideways when Captain Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand), an obsessive animal control officer, decides to make Alex her next quarry. Modeled on Greta Garbo, DuBois gives [i]Madagascar 3[/i] the obligatory hissable villain it needs, but also gives DreamWorks Animation one of the most memorable villains in the last decade.

To escape Dubois’ clutches, Alex and the others join a down-on-its-luck traveling circus, the Circo Zaragoza. When Alex discovers the circus’ includes a London stop where, if signed by an American promoter, they’ll travel to New York City to perform, Alex lies his way into managing the circus, much to the pleasure of Stefano (Martin Short), an outrageously Italian-accented sea lion, Vitaly (Bryan Cranston), a gloomy, Siberian tiger reacts negatively to the prospect of Alex’s ideas, ideas that involve new, more colorful acts and Vitaly revisiting the seemingly impossible act that once, long ago, made him famous. Gia (Jessica Chastain), a vivacious jaguar, offers Alex the obligatory romantic interest (chaste, of course) that he’s been missing for the first and second entries. Unsurprisingly, Alex’s lies threaten to permanently derail his plan to return to New York.

There’s a modest life lesson in there for preteens (i.e., lying vs. truthfulness and the consequences thereof), but Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted doesn’t linger on Alex’s lies or moralize about his behavior. Instead, Alex’s lies are just one more obstacle Alex and the others have to overcome before he (and they) discover the real life-lesson buried surface deep in Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. Home isn’t a physical place or location. It’s metaphorical, filled out with friends and family. Life lessons, however, remain secondary to the consistently engaging visuals Darnell, McGrath and Vernon put up on the screen. The early set piece in Monte Carlo does little to prepare audiences for the explosion of light, color, and action that fills the last half hour. Darnell, McGrath and Vernon exploit 3D for its absurdist possibilities, gleefully throwing objects and characters at the audience at almost every opportunity.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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