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Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

Bungle in the Jungle

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

There is an audience for Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, a very young audience not yet capable of discriminating between disposable larks like this one and the smarter, more sophisticated storytelling of WALL*E, Kung-Fu Panda and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. Perhaps that makes me the wrong person to review this movie.

I headed into DreamWorks Animation’s Escape 2 Africa ready to be entertained and, it must be noted, entirely unfamiliar with the popular children’s comedy that inspired it. I settled into my seat for an IMAX screening -- always a plus -- surrounded by a raucous crowd of kids whose excitement was far louder than my own. The lights dimmed, and I sat back, waiting for the theater to be filled with laughter. And, for the most part, I kept waiting.

For the uninitiated, Madagascar and its sequel follow the continuing misadventures of Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller), a feisty lion with a flare for the theatrical. He’s a song-and-dance man -- er, lion -- raised in the New York Zoo, where adoring visitors cheer on his acrobatic flips and graceful twirls. While not exactly a coward, Alex isn’t suited to life in the jungle. He’s accustomed to prepared meals and manmade habitats, and if he seems a bit fancy, there’s a reason.

He’s not alone. In both movies, Alex and his friends -- Melvin the neurotic giraffe (an endearing David Schwimmer), Marty the trash-talking zebra (Chris Rock) and a proudly Rubensesque hippo named Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) -- find themselves fish out of water when they’re unceremoniously dumped in the African wilderness. This time, Alex is reunited with his alpha-lion father (Bernie Mac) and quickly embroiled in a Lion King-style plot to prove himself worthy of the family mane. Meanwhile, Melvin makes big, droopy eyes at Gloria and mulls the likelihood of an interspecies romance.

Escape 2 Africa boasts far too many characters and silly, inconsequential subplots to warrant mention here, save to say that the least appealing of the lot involves a group of New York tourists stranded in the jungle and led by a little old lady who moonlights as an aggressively unpleasant lion tamer. There are a few laughs, courtesy of some exquisitely erudite monkeys and King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen, of Borat), a self-aggrandizing lemur who comes off as a pint-sized parody of Dubya. But this isn’t a movie concerned with engaging hearts and minds so much as lazily bombarding the ears with Top 40 sing-alongs.

The animation seems a bit crude in comparison with the brilliantly lifelike artistry DreamWorks invested in last year’s Shrek the Third, but the movie is colorful enough to succeed as sheer spectacle, especially when blown up to IMAX proportions. Beyond that, its shortcomings are many, and may be obvious even to a nine-year old.