With a few notable exceptions, children's films aren't known for breaking new thematic ground. They tend to rely on the same lessons of learning to be yourself, being a good friend, and cooperating with others. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa took in $63.5 million its premiere weekend-the best opening for an animated feature this year-by sticking to that familiar territory. However, while it treads much of the same ground as its 2005 predecessor-once again the escaped New York Zoo animals take a wacky journey to an unknown land and learn that working together is the only way to survive-it manages to drum up more laughs. By spending more time on the periphery characters that made the first movie fun, Madagascar 2 (rated PG for some mild crude humor) gives audiences more of what they love.
No offense to featured players Ben Stiller, Jada Pinkett Smith, Chris Rock, or David Schwimmer for their respective portrayals of Alex the Lion, Gloria the Hippo, Marty the Zebra, and Melman the Giraffe, but there's a strong argument to be made that they were not the ones responsible for making the first movie a hit. It was Sacha Baron Cohen (best known for his foul-mouthed, racist creation Borat) and his antics as the party-loving lemur King Julien that really made the little ones faces light up and had them jumping up and down singing: "I like to move it, move it." One only need look at the poster for Madagascar 2, which features the repetitive lyrics in super-bold type, to realize that the film's producers know who buttered their bread on that occasion. King Julien, along with a cadre of military penguins and erudite monkeys, provided nearly all the laughs in the first outing, and they do the same here. A side plot that has the devious penguins scheming to steal jeeps from tourists is uproarious, as is their collaboration with the monkey masses to rehabilitate a crashed airplane.
So why bother spending the majority of the sequel's time on the main characters from the first film? That's a good question and one for which the movie provides no explanation. It's not entirely the fault of Stiller, Smith, Rock, or Schwimmer that the story drags every time it returns to one of their characters; they're hardly given anything amusing to say. The same goes for the additions of Alec Baldwin and the late comedian Bernie Mac, both wonderfully funny actors given the right material-material they don't get here. Mac is wasted in a semi-serious role as the leader of the pride, and Baldwin falls flat, thanks to lines that never come close to matching his naturally caustic wit.
With so impressive a revenue haul the first week out, it's impossible to argue that Madagascar 2isn't a hit. But a much funnier and fresher movie is waiting to be made about those crazy penguins, monkeys, and lemurs that are the real draws. If the team behind the Madagascar movies decides to make that film, they could once again top themselves.
(Editor's Note: This movie review did not appear in the print edition of the November 15, 2008, issue of WORLD, but is offered here as a Web Extra.)