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.
Mobster-turned-movie producer Chili Palmer (John Travolta) decides to shift over to yet other creative albeit dangerous terrain: The music industry. He's spurred along by the murder of his friend small-time music maven Tommy (James Woods) who leaves behind a beautiful widow Edie (Uma Thurman) and a massive debt to a dangerous rap music mogul Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer). Chili tells Edie about Linda Moon (Christina Milian) a gifted singer he decides to manage after seeing her perform. With her raw talent Linda has the potential to bail them out. But first they have to get her out of a nasty contract and abusive relationship with her former manager Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel) his right-hand man Raji (Vince Vaughn) and his right-hand man a bodyguard with the unfortunate name of Elliot Wilhelm (The Rock). Complicating things are the Russian mob and a bevy of cops keeping Chili in their crosshairs. This all feels tacked on as the nameless accented characters serve the same purpose as robots in a science fiction movie--they can get blown away without sacrificing any stars or feeling any emotion (prioritize those considerations as you wish).
John Travolta who has barely aged in the 10 years since the first film is in top form in Be Cool. He lives up to the title and his character's name. No matter how dire the circumstances no matter how much he's outnumbered and no matter how many gleaming pistols he has aimed at him he never ever loses his even-keeled demeanor. But maybe that's the problem--because if Chili doesn't ever break a sweat then why should we the audience? Thurman isn't exactly showing her years either but has little to do as Edie. Vince Vaughn is the best he's ever been--he's amped up thinks he's black and sports a high-pitched laugh that is instantly annoying and hysterical. As Raji's gay bodyguard the Rock has a great time lampooning himself (at least the raised eyebrow bit) and revealing terrific comic timing. Cedric the Entertainer would have been better off as more of a reluctant menace to play toward his skills instead of against them. Even the young up and comer Milian does a nice job playing the ingénue singer. But have you ever thrown a party and realize that you've actually invited too many of your good friends? And you don't get to spend enough time with any of them? Well adding the following to the list above is: Andre Benjamin of the hip hop grou Outkast plays Dabu--a klutzy overeager trigger man for Cedric the Entertainer; the late Robert Pastorelli as a deli-sandwich eating hit man; Danny DeVito in a cameo reprising his character from the original; and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler playing himself.
Director F. Gary Gray's understated style and clarity is what made a movie like The Italian Job so entertaining. But with Be Cool that style is mostly absent. There is a flatness to the direction; specifically there are a lot of close-ups for one-liners and many scenes go on just a few beats too long (one that comes to mind is an otherwise funny scene where The Rock models impossibly gay threads for himself in a mirror). In some cases jokes are simply repeated instead of building. Those are heavy sins for a comedy. Plus the kind of breezy cinema that Be Cool and its predecessor Pulp Fiction have traded on has now become a little worn out. It's just not enough anymore to have a black-clad Travolta confidently stride across a room toward danger even if he does it better than almost anybody else. Or having charismatic tough guys oozes the cool all while discussing things like the merits of a Burger King sandwich. What's needed in Be Cool is a slightly fresher perspective. The convoluted plot with its meaningless table-turning doesn't help matters. It's a series of entertaining moments rather than a coherent movie.