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.
Dr. Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) is a novelist and retired college professor whose body of work includes a novel many critics considered a great classic when published decades ago. But that was then this is now as Schiller struggles to finish his latest novel one that has so far taken him 10 years to write. Into his life comes Heather (Lauren Ambrose) a brash college student who is writing her thesis on Schiller and his work. She’s a pretty beguiling thing filled with ambition and drive; and those are exactly the things that Schiller has somehow lost along the way. As the two of them form an uneasy relationship with Schiller’s daughter (Lili Taylor) as a third part of this emotionally repressed triangle the story unfolds with twists and turns. The finale reminds us that no matter how old we are if we want to do something artistic then even Starting Out in the Evening of our lives is better than never getting going at all. Langella’s stellar performance is at the heart of this quietly affecting film. He plays Schiller as an insulated emotionally bereft artist whose life spark died the moment he lost his wife (decades before) in a car crash. He’s never had the passion to write to the level he did before she died; nor has he had passion for much of anything else including his daughter until Heather shows up at his door and insists he begin to feel life again. Ambrose (of Six Feet Under fame) is perfectly cast as the young woman who hero-worships this much-older man and who brings him back into a passion for living by her mere presence. Their story is real and affecting as is the subplot of Schiller’s daughter whose life is passing her by much as her father’s. By the time the film ends both father and daughter have had life-altering experiences due to the catalyst created by this stranger in their midst--and both are the better for it. With Starting Out in the Evening director Andrew Wagner has fashioned a subtle quiet vision of Brian Morton’s award-winning novel of the same name. He certainly seems to understand the inherent pressure of having a youthful success in the arts. What does one do next after giving the world a masterpiece while still in an early part of one’s life? For his main character that struggle and question have become overwhelming with the result being his shutting down to any of life’s more joyous or emotional experiences. There’s a lot going on under the surface of this film a directing technique Wagner may have absorbed from his famous uncle Mark Rydell who directed On Golden Pond a picture with some similar themes. The downside to Wagner’s technique is in his pacing for there are moments where the movie moves so slowly it is hard not to be bored. But by the final frames there is an emotional resonance to the story that cannot be ignored especially if the viewer is someone who aspires to excel in any of the world’s creative disciplines. This makes Starting Out in the Evening a worthwhile experience for nascent writers artists musicians etc. And a warning as well: to pace yourself for the duration of your life rather than explode on the scene with nothing left to give once an impression has been made.