A kids’ movie without the cheeky jokes for adults is like a big juicy BLT without the B… or the T. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted may have a title that sounds like it was made up in a cartoon sequel laboratory but when it comes to serving up laughs just think of the film as a BLT with enough extra bacon to satisfy even the wildest of animals — or even a parent with a gaggle of tots in tow. Yes even with that whole "Afro Circus" nonsense.
It’s not often that we find exhaustively franchised films like the Madagascar set that still work after almost seven years. Despite being spun off into TV shows and Christmas specials in addition to its big screen adventures the series has not only maintained its momentum it has maintained the part we were pleasantly surprised by the first time around: great jokes.
In this third installment of the series – the trilogy-maker if you will – directing duo Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath add Conrad Vernon (director Monsters Vs. Aliens) to the helm as our trusty gang swings back into action. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) are stuck in Africa after the hullaballoo of Madagascar 2 and they’ll do anything to get back to their beloved New York. Just a hop skip and a jump away in Monte Carlo the penguins are doing their usual greedy schtick but the zoo animals catch up with them just in time to catch the eye of the sinister animal control stickler Captain Dubois (Frances McDormand). And just like that the practically super human captain is chasing them through Monte Carlo and the rest of Europe in hopes of planting Alex’s perfectly coifed lion head on her wall of prized animals.
Luckily for pint-sized viewers Dubois’ terrifying presence is balanced out by her sheer inhuman strength uncanny guiles and Stretch Armstrong flexibility (ah the wonder of cartoons) as well as Alex’s escape plan: the New Yorkers run away with the European circus. While Dubois’ terrifying Doberman-like presence looms over the entire film a sense of levity (which is a word the kiddies might learn from Stiller’s eloquent lion) comes from the plan for salvation in which the circus animals and the zoo animals band together to revamp the circus and catch the eye of a big-time American agent. Sure the pacing throughout the first act is practically nonexistent running like a stampede through the jungle but by the time we're palling around under the big top the film finds its footing.
The visual splendor of the film (and man is there a champion size serving of it) the magnificent danger and suspense is enhanced to great effect by the addition of 3D technology – and not once is there a gratuitous beverage or desperate Crocodile Dundee knife waved in our faces to prove its worth. The caveat is that the soundtrack employs a certain infectious Katy Perry ditty at the height of the 3D spectacular so parents get ready to hear that on repeat until the leaves turn yellow.
But visual delights and adventurous zoo animals aside Madagascar 3’s real strength is in its script. With the addition of Noah Baumbach (Greenberg The Squid and the Whale) to the screenwriting team the script is infused with a heightened level of almost sarcastic gravitas – a welcome addition to the characteristically adult-friendly reference-heavy humor of the other Madagascar films. To bring the script to life Paramount enlisted three more than able actors: Vitaly the Siberian tiger (Bryan Cranston) Gia the Leopard (Jessica Chastain) and Stefano the Italian Sealion (Martin Short). With all three actors draped in European accents it might take viewers a minute to realize that the cantankerous tiger is one and the same as the man who plays an Albuquerque drug lord on Breaking Bad but that makes it that much sweeter to hear him utter slant-curse words like “Bolshevik” with his usual gusto.
Between the laughs the terror of McDormand’s Captain Dubois and the breathtaking virtual European tour the Zoosters’ accidental vacation is one worth taking. Madagascar 3 is by no means an insta-classic but it’s a perfectly suited for your Summer-at-the-movies oasis.
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
Plenty of solid shows will be competing for top honors at this year's Emmy awards, but (as is always the case), there will also be plenty of solid shows that won't be competing.
That's how the cookie crumbles: with countless channels airing countless programs, there will always be quality television that slips under the Academy's radar. But over the course of TV history, there have been a few actors and shows that haven't been simply fallen to the wayside of the Emmys, they've been straight up glossed over. Snubbed.
As we approach this Sunday's ceremony, we took a look back at some of the bigger disappointments in Emmy history, the highlights of sitcoms and dramas that, for whatever reason, never earned their deserved statues.
Homicide Life on the Street/The Wire
Writer/Producer David Simon must have done something horrible in a past life. That seems like the only explanation for a man who's contributed to the world some of the best television of the past twenty years and has rarely seen love from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
Simon's 1993 show Homicide: Life on the Street set a new tone for crime procedurals and only acquired a few supporting cast nods in its six year run. His HBO show The Wire is often referred to as the greatest TV show of all time and not once did it garner a nomination for Best Drama. His latest Treme is only in its second season, but from the get-go had critics raving.
So far, no love. Will Simon's series forever feel the cold backhand of Emmy snubs?
Sarah Michelle Gellar for Buffy
Trumpets are sounding for the return of Sarah Michelle Gellar to primetime television (her new show Ringer debuted last night), but it's not because of her starring roles in The Grudge or Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. When Joss Whedon decided to to turn his mildly successful horror movie Buffy into a weekly TV show, he found the perfect hero in Geller, equal parts teen drama beauty and rough, vampire butt-kicker. Geller's performance combined with Whedon's snappy dialogue and imaginative plots helped Buffy transcend its home at the WB. Unfortunately, to Emmy voters, it would always be a "show for teenagers"—Whedon picked up nod once in seven season, while Geller never managed a nomination.
Former Letterman and Larry Sanders Show writer Paul Sims assembled a dream cast for his broadcast-centric office sitcom, but few would have known that at the time: Dave Foley (Kids in the Hall), Maura Tierney, Stephen Root, Andy Dick, Joe Rogen, Phil Hartman—the talent was in its infancy, but it was there. NewsRadio took a classic format and gave it a youthful edge. The result was five seasons of evolving characters, shorelines and humor, put to an untimely end by the death of Phil Hartman. Sadly, the show only earned one comedy nomination in its five season run: a posthumous, supporting nod for Hartman.
An American Family
The Emmy award for Outstanding Reality Program was only adopted by the Academy in 2001 and has since honored shows like The Osbournes, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List. But without 1971's An American Family, the idea of docudramas television—or even guilty pleasure trashy reality TV—may never have come to fruition. The show's premise was simple: document a family's life for six months. The show was cut into 12 revolutionary episodes, spawning spin-off series and the cinematic adaptation Cinema Verite, which aired on HBO this past year.
How many Emmys was it nominated for? Zip.
Desi Arnaz for I Love Lucy
Lucille Ball dominated the '50s sitcom scene with her tour-de-force performance of physical comedy, nabbing five Emmy nominations over the six year run of I Love Lucy. But while Ball's Chaplin-esque antics stand-out decades later, would she really be the legendary star she was without her co-star and then-husband Desi Arnaz?
Arnaz was the Michael Bluth of his time, the straight man counterpart to Ball's whacked out troublemaker. He's best known for throwing his hands in the air, crying "Luuuuccyyyyy!" and stirring up the occasional "Babalu" musical number, but even Arnaz was prone to jumping into Ball's crazy plots. He was a rock of the sitcom block, yet not once in his lengthy career did Arnaz find himself on the Emmy's list of contenders.
Josh Holloway for LOST
Until the final season, it was looking like none of LOST's "lead" actors would see love from the Emmys. That is, until star Matthew Fox squeezed one out as the mind-bending drama crossed the finish line.
LOST has been the object of The Emmys' affection in all categories, but with talent, it's been severely unappreciative. Case in point: Josh Holloway, James "Sawyer" Ford, never picking up a nod. While Fox's nomination was deserved, Holloway was the show's perfect foil and his work in Season Three, when his relationships with Jack and Kate really evolve, helped turn Sawyer into a three-dimensional character that mostly actors can rarely achieve.
Any chance we can go back and just throw him an Emmy after the fact?
Ed O'Neill and Katey Segal for Married with Children
On the opposite end of the brilliant performance spectrum lies Ed O'Neill and Katey Segal as the crass (but lovable) couple Al and Peggy from Married with Children. The show was the debut sitcom when Fox launched in 1987 and helped define the network as a…a youth-centric alternative to the stuffy mainstream channels. That probably didn't help Married with Children round up award nominations (after 11 seasons, it only gained technical noms), but history will forever have a place for Al and Peggy. At that point, audiences hadn't seen anything that filthy, that wrong—which makes O'Neill and Segal selling it one of the bigger snubs in Emmy history.
Lauren Graham for Gilmore Girls
Another case where the Academy can't look past the marketing of a show. Gilmore Girls was another WB/CW comedy pegged by most as a small screen interpretation of the "chick flick," light, fluffy and stale. Quite unfortunate, as Gilmore Girls had one of the sharpest wits on TV thanks to the lightning-fast writing of creator Amy Sherman and a charming lead performance by Lauren Graham. The actress' character Lorelai could have been another comedy mom, but Graham elevated her above Reba-style, surface level caricature to dimensional (but funny!) human being. In an era where Desperate Housewives and Sex in the City were dominating the lead actress category year after year, Graham remains one of the hardest working and underappreciated performers of the 2000s.
Taking genre television seriously has never been the Emmys' strong suit, but when a sci-fi show takes itself seriously enough, people start listening…and watching. Syfy's Battlestar Galactica felt like a breath of fresh air amidst a sea of cornball, syndicated genre crap, diving head first into heady character drama and political intrigue with a few robots thrown in for good measure. The talent gained plenty of critical response—most notably the stand out performance by Katee Sackoff as the tough, female pilot Starbuck—but, alas, Battlestar was confined (like its sci-fi drama predecessors) to a lifetime of technical awards. Yes, the special effects were dazzling—but so was the riveting drama. The show (and the genre as a whole) could have used the Emmy love.
Nick Offerman for Parks & Recreation
As the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation prepares for its fourth season (with destiny unknown), we have an important message for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences: don't you dare let Nick Offerman be a permanent staple on this list.
Offerman's Ron Swanson is P&R's head grump, the yin to Amy Poehler's hyper-enthusiastic Leslie Knope yang. While they can often be found butting heads, their continued friendship is the glue that keeps Pawnee, Indiana's Parks Department (and the show) together. Offerman paints Ron with a perpetual frown, usually clouded by his sizable mustache. But once in awhile Ron slips a smile (or, even rarer, a drunken tiny hat dance) and in those few seconds Offerman pulls off a complete 180 and warms audiences' hearts. Parks and Recreation began in the shadow of The Office, but thanks to guys like Ron Swanson, has become the more fulfilling of the two shows.
Unlike Jonah that whale of a VeggieTales rendition of the Biblical story this computer-animated adventure on the high seas goes easy on the preaching. Indeed our produce protagonists spend more time uttering variations on famous lines from classic films and TV shows than they do quoting the Old Testament making this VeggieTales Movie a mostly secular experience. Then again Pirates Who Don't Do Anything feels more like a G-rated remake of Three Amigos than a Sunday school sermon straight out of The Good Book. Elliot Sedgewick and George (played respectively by VeggieTales staples Larry the Cucumber Mr. Lunt and Pa Grape) are cabin boys and aspiring actors at the Pieces of Ate Dinner Theater. Soon after being fired for wrecking the show’s set the three pals are whisked away to the 17th century by a “HelpSeeker ” a magical apparatus sent from the past to find brave souls willing to save a prince and princess from being turned into vegetable stew by their pirate uncle. Our heroes certainly don’t think they’re the right veggies for the job and it’s not just because they don’t have arms and legs. Nevertheless they make like Will Turner as they encounter rock monsters and mechanical sea serpents en route to rescue the royal siblings from the evil clutches of Robert the Terrible. But first they must survive the attack of the killer cheese curls… Who needs to spend a fortune on a big-name voice cast when series creators Phil Vischer and Nawrocki can put the words into the mouths of most of their walking talking and crooning vegetable characters? Between them Vischer and Nawrocki give voice to 14 heroes and villains and it’s to their credit that none sound the same. Then again after 15 years of turning out one VeggieTales morality play after another they should have this thing down pat. The goofy gourd Mr. Lunt (Nawrocki)—with his slight Hispanic accent thankfully never employed as a source of amusement—clearly steals the show with his antics. Too bad the jittery Larry the Cucumber and the aging-but-stout Pa Grape (both Visher) don’t stand out from the crowd the same way that the Simpsons do from their fellow Springfieldians. They certainly do not derive much in the way of personality from Visher’s rather blasé delivery. The emphasis seems to be on what they say rather than how they say it in the hope that VeggieTales’ young and loyal followers clearly understand the message that’s being disseminated. Either that or Visher’s grown tired of playing the same anthropomorphic archetypes for so many years. The only other veteran voice actor to distinguish himself from Visher and Nawrocki is Cam Clarke. But that’s only because he’s so tranquil as Robert that the pirate warlord comes across about as terrible as the ocean on a calm clear day. Unsurprisingly there’s a lot of yo-ho-ho’s but hardly a bottle of rum in sight as our reluctant vegetables of action set sail. But as squeaky clean as this sea tale is director Nawrocki and writer Vischer don’t feel the need to hammer home their lesson in true heroics. Not that these pirates have much do aside from making nice with some less-than-fearsome creatures or engaging in (food)fights with Robert the Terrible. Nawrocki and Vischer don’t show much in the way of imagination as they put the pirates’ mettle to the test but at least Nawrocki keeps things cruising along so the film never outstays its welcome. The animation isn’t going to dazzle you Pixar-style but that’s more of a function of its characters than anything. There’s not much you can do with a piece of asparagus is there? At least parents don’t have to sit through any embarrassing Shrek-like double entendres. That said Nawrocki and Vischer try to entertain the grownups by throwing out as many pop-culture references as possible. The problem is they clearly have not seen a new film or TV show since the last Bush administration. So their riffs on Days of Our Lives Edward Scissorhands and Scarface come across as old and desperate. They have better luck with their closing-credits silly song which is a fairly amusing reworking of The B-52’s’ “Rock Lobster.” Just when you thought you had gotten “Spider-Pig” out of your head along comes “Rock Monster.” Arrrgh!