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Baby, it's a wild world 

click to enlarge Marty (Chris Rock) serves to remind us that zebras really - are the edgy comedians of the wild.
  • Marty (Chris Rock) serves to remind us that zebras really are the edgy comedians of the wild.

Madagascar (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown

From this computer-animated comedy's opening credits, which feature a vine-swinging zebra and a flock of singing penguins, it's clear that cartoon charm will win out over persuasive storytelling.

Madagascar is so packed with madcap humor and outlandish acrobatics at breakneck speed that it resembles an episode of the old televised cartoon "Animaniacs."

The film follows the adventures of four animals that live in New York's Central Park Zoo: Marty, the rambunctious zebra (with the voice of Chris Rock); Alex, the vain lion (Ben Stiller); Gloria, the motherly hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith); and Melman, the hypochondriac giraffe (David Schwimmer).

Rock contributes the perfect personality to Marty, who celebrates his tenth birthday in the opening sequence. His raw sense of humor is perhaps part of the reason this children's movie was given a PG rating. At one point, when he learns the thermometer Melman gives him for his birthday was used rectally, he almost blurts out "Muthaf*****!" But Marty's ultimately bummed out because he's trapped in a pen and wants to experience "the wild."

Marty gets his chance -- by accident. He notices a smart-aleck gang of penguins escaping, and follows them out. When his three friends notice he's gone, they break out as well and catch up with him at Grand Central Station. But the animals are captured in a showdown with the NYPD, and in the aftermath, animal rights activists convince the zoo to release the animals in Africa.

Before the animals can reach the wildlife reserve in Kenya, the penguins hijack the ship and steer it toward Antarctica. Marty, Alex, Gloria and Melman are thrown overboard in crates and wash up on Madagascar.

The film continues in this improbable vein when the four friends meet a local tribe of dancing lemurs. Alex, who at first seems ill at ease on the island because he's no longer the star attraction, begins to feel his carnivorous instincts and threatens to eat Marty and the lemurs.

The story line never quite comes together in a stirring way, and lacks the same satisfying emotional punch that made Finding Nemo and Shrek children's classics. But on the positive side, what the film misses in storytelling is made up for, in part, by the way it keeps the action and comedy percolating.

The animation deliberately mimics cartoon action, with wildly unrealistic movement that is refreshing compared to hyper-realistic CGI films such as Polar Express.

Some of the gags are distinctly for kids, but others, like homages to Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom" and the raining rose petal scene in American Beauty (Alex hallucinates that it's raining steaks), will make adults chuckle. When two intellectual chimps break out of the zoo, one says, "I heard Tom Wolfe is speaking at Lincoln Center ... well, of course we're going to throw poo at him."

Overall, almost everyone will find something to laugh at in this film. And the civilization versus "the wild" theme running through the movie is intelligent enough to warrant a political science class discussion on Hobbes and Rousseau.

But when it comes to message, meaning and narrative, this movie is too jumbled to be a classic.

--Dan Wilcock

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