New York's Central Park Zoo's main attraction--Alex the Lion (voiced by Ben Stiller) and his best friends Marty the curious zebra (voiced by Chris Rock) Melman the hypochondriac giraffe (voiced by David Schwimmer) and Gloria the motherly hippo (voiced by Jada Pinkett Smith)--are pampered beyond belief. They enjoy lavish meals and have their own park views. In other words they live in blissful captivity. But Marty isn't as content as his friends. He yearns to live in the wild and when he makes an attempt to see this wilderness firsthand he inadvertently drags his friends into his wild scheme. Soon the animals are darted captured crated and put on a ship to Africa to go live in their natural habitats. Add a quartet of renegade penguins looking for their own wild time and you've got yourself an Animal Planet special. But when the penguins stage a mutiny the four crated pals get accidentally knocked off the boat. They suddenly find themselves washed ashore on the exotic island of Madagascar with the jungle all around them. No daily shows. No adoring fans. And especially no steak served on a silver platter. There is a gaggle of dancing lemurs but that's about it. What's a lion to do? Why eat his best friend of course!
The fun part of listening to celebrity voices is trying to imagine the actors as their CGI-created characters. Stiller finds his inner-lion strutting around as the conceited neurotic but lovable Alex. Rock easily slips into his striped alter ego Marty the "crack-a-lackin'" zebra with the free spirit and the zippy one-liners. And Schwimmer fits Melman's germaphobe personality perfectly-he's the ultimate New Yorker who doesn't want nature all over him. Only the petite Pinkett as the zaftig Gloria is a little hard to picture but Pinkett's sassy attitude comes shining through. The ones who steal the show however are the four plotting penguins lead by no-nonsense leader Skipper (voiced by co-director Tom McGrath). Part Charlton Heston part Robert Stack Skipper has never believed he was a real penguin. But he is determined to get his crew to the "wide open spaces of Antarctica." "Just smile and wave boys smile and wave " is his double-talk for "Let's dig a hole into the sewer and blow this Popsicle stand." Maybe we shouldn't tell them Antarctica really isn't all that great of a place to live.
The folks at DreamWorks still haven't quite been able to top their best Shrek as opposed to their rivals at major competitor Pixar who just seems to be getting better and better. Sure Shrek 2 made a lot more money but it ended up just being more of the same and not quite as funny. Shark Tale was just a frenetic underwater mess. Madagascar with its crazy animal antics comes the closest to matching Shrek's wit and originality especially during the first hour. Directors McGrath and Eric Darnell paint a pretty picture of zoo life if a tad unrealistic. Please has anyone been to a zoo lately? Blissful is hardly the word I would use to describe how animals live. But for the movie's sakes we'll go with it. Yet when the gang hits the shores of Madagascar the pace unfortunately slows down. The fish-out-of-water scenario as the four try to adjust to the wild is hilarious especially tangling with the lemurs. But then it switches gears as Alex's wrestles with his own beastly nature while trying not to bite Marty's butt. It feels tacked on and contrived and doesn't fit in with the rest of the raucousness.
The animated Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas has all the great adventure of the story wrapped up in a sappy little package for the kiddies. Taken from the ancient tales of the Arabian Nights Sinbad is a rogue who cares only about what is in his and his crew's best interest--and little else. As the film begins he unsuccessfully tries to steal the Book of Peace--which keeps order in the world--from his childhood best friend Proteus the Prince of Syracuse who is sailing to the city to return the sacred book. Although the two are estranged it's clear they still have a kinship. When the Book of Peace is actually stolen by Eris the goddess of chaos she frames Sinbad for the theft. Proteus stands up for his friend and makes the council give Sinbad one chance to find and return the precious book or Proteus will die on his behalf. Disbelieving the threat the pirate decides to blow the whole thing off but Proteus' beautiful betrothed Marina who has stowed away on Sinbad's ship has other plans. Marina has Sinbad's crew on her side and it could turn mutinous if the guy doesn't fulfill the mission. OK so he'll go get the book. Eris doesn't make it easy for our reluctant hero--dispatching both monstrous creatures and the elements to do battle along the way. But ultimately the brave Sinbad learns a few life lessons falls in love and wins out by following his heart. Aww!
See what a little success in the animated world can get you? These days an animated film can demand the attention of any A-list actor to provide the voices not just your occasional Robin Williams. We have Finding Nemo with the voices of Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres and now Sinbad which attracted huge names such as Brad Pitt (Sinbad) Catherine Zeta-Jones (Marina) Michelle Pfeiffer (Eris) and Joseph Fiennes (Proteus). It could also be the fact DreamWorks' animation king Jeffrey Katzenberg has the clout to rope them all in. Pitt as Sinbad is roguishly clever infusing the pirate with the requisite amount mischievousness and rebellion while Zeta-Jones provides the adventurous Marina with the right amount of bravado and vulnerability. Fiennes as the stiff but honorable Proteus is fine but you can tell right away who has the most fun with her character; Pfeiffer's Eris is a pure delight in sound as well as sight. She is able to take her Catwoman persona from Batman Returns and elevate it to a well celestial level. In the supporting roles Dennis Haysbert does a nice job as Sinbad's right-hand man Kale as does Adriano Giannini the son of legendary actor Giancarlo Giannini as the ship's lookout Rat. Kudos all around for a job well done.
As a self-proclaimed fan of those cheesy 1970s Sinbad movies including The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger--where the stop-motion special effects of wizard Ray Harryhausen made it all worthwhile--the idea of an animated version of Sinbad seems perfectly fitted for the genre. Now the mythical creatures could be fully realized in vivid Technicolor where the DreamWorks' animators spare no expense in providing their own visions of things such as sirens sea monsters and giant birds of prey. The artwork for Eris is a particular stroke of genius with the flowing black hair and beautifully evil features; the film definitely comes alive when she is onscreen. As well the action sequences are as exciting as any car chase or gun battle you'll see in a live-action film. The drawback for the adults is the film's slightly schmaltzy story about friendship and of course true love. It's not entirely clear why computer-animated films such as Shrek and Finding Nemo are now becoming the only animated films that appeal to everyone adults and kids alike. It used to be traditional hand-drawn classics such as The Little Mermaid and The Lion King did the trick but now it seems animated films need only provide spectacular visuals--without a great story and snappy dialogue to back them up.