After a brief flashback prologue where we see how the young lion Alex (Ben Stiller) is separated from his father Zuba (Bernie Mac) inadvertently ending up in the Big Apple the story returns to present day as our favorite New York zoo denizens prepare to take off from Madagascar in a crudely constructed airplane piloted by the penguins and propelled by slingshot. Unfortunately for Alex lovelorn giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) fast talking zebra Marty (Chris Rock) and svelte hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett-Smith) instead of landing in NYC the aircraft sputters and crash lands right in the middle of Africa where they run into a world of exotic creatures. This also includes Alex’s long lost dad and mom. Happy reunion? Not quite. Zuba’s nemesis Mukunga (Alec Baldwin) insists they follow lion pride lore which means Alex must go through a rite of passage -- one he is sure to fail if Mukunga has his way. Meanwhile Marty tries to integrate into a pack of zebras; Gloria gets hooked up with a soulful hippo (will.i.am); and Melman is up to his neck looking for love. Oh and they also all have to save the Kenya preserve from a life-threatening water shortage. No biggie! Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa’s witty and hip dialogue provides rich voice over opportunities for a talented crew of actors. Stiller continues to be a riot as the showbiz loving Zooperstar Alex especially in his attempts to earn the pride’s respect. Chris Rock earns his stripes as he tries to hang with a large group of look-a-like sound-a-like zebras. Schwimmer is winning and hysterical as Melman now considered a witchdoctor by his fellow giraffe-ians while Pinkett-Smith continues to shine as hippo Gloria looking for a little action. Among the new voices rapper will.i.am as Moto Moto the last of the red-hot hippos will have you wanting More More while Alec Baldwin gets to play the heavy with Lion King style. The late Bernie Mac playing it relatively straight as Alex’s father proves (as he does in his other new release this week Soul Men) shows us just how much his unique brand of humor will be sorely missed. Stealing the show however and getting king-sized laughs in an expanded role is Sacha Baron Cohen back as King Julien the hard-partying head of the lemurs. With a vast improvement in Madagascar’s state-of-the-art computer graphic work directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath take this sequel several notches up in terms of technical savvy including the exciting opening sequence as well as the plane crash. But they really score with the script with new co-writer Etan Cohen adding some crisp comedy. What was mostly just a serviceable script the first time around has gotten a lot more sophisticated and clever a development parents being dragged by their kids will be keenly grateful for. This is the rare animated sequel that actually has a reason for existence other than minting money. It has more heart drama and laughs than the original Madagascar which despite its flaws still made half a billion dollars worldwide. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa should make even more as it proves to be one of the year’s most entertaining comedy delights.
While clearly a minority some people still need the following clarification: Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) is not and never was a real person and Walk Hard is not his biopic. Going in with the knowledge that this is in fact a spoof music biopic (primarily taking aim at Walk the Line) makes the movie a whole lot more enjoyable. Much like Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash in Walk the Line Dewey Cox is set to play a concert in the opening scene but he too first needs to reflect on his whole life. It all started in Springberry Alabama in the 1940s when a young Dewey (Conner Rayburn) accidentally halves his brother (Chip Horness) with a machete. It’s an event that will both haunt Dewey--aided by his dad's (Raymond J. Barry) constant reminder that that “the wrong son died”--and inspire him. The death also teaches Dewey that even at a young age he can play the hell out of a downtrodden blues ditty which leads him to follow his dreams of a career in music. And it’s a career that again plays out like a satire of Cash’s watered-down biography in Walk the Line--complete with drugs aplenty famous encounters (i.e. a kung-fu Elvis as satirized by White Stripes frontman Jack White) tantrums involving sinks and a wife (Kristen Wiig)-vs.-girlfriend (Jenna Fischer) mess. It’s a backhanded slap to the face of John C. Reilly that his first headlining role is as a mock-rocker a hyperbole of a real star but Reilly has shown that he is a real showbiz trooper. While Will Ferrell whom Reilly seems to tap into might’ve been a slightly better fit the well-traveled actor does great work with a much tougher character to play than meets the eye. Like his real biopic-actor counterparts Reilly sings the songs and dons the dialect but it’s his ability to do so with a constant side of satire that makes this a fantastic performance; such a dichotomy also might explain his suprising Golden Globe nod. Aside from The Office star Fischer--in a great versatile sexy turn (and her biggest role to date) as the pseudo-June Carter to Reilly’s Johnny Cash--and SNL’s Wiig as Cox’s forgotten wife cameos comprise Walk Hard’s supporting cast in the best imaginable way. Just about everyone from NBC’s cool shows (30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer The Office’s Craig Robinson SNL’s Chris Parnell/Tim Meadows) and the Judd Apatow Comedy Troupe (David Krumholtz Harold Ramis Martin Starr) pops up. But the movie’s best cameos come from Justin Long Jack Black Jason Schwartzman and Paul Rudd as (probably improvised) acid-trip versions of George Harrison Paul McCartney Ringo Starr and John Lennon respectively. These days it seems Judd Apatow could merely be friends with someone who’s working on a movie and it becomes an “Apatow production ” but his fingerprints are all over Walk Hard. The comedy tastemaker co-wrote and produced this spoof with his Freaks and Geeks cohort Jake Kasdan (Orange County) who directed; however while his sense of humor is apparent here his imagination isn’t. The very nature of a spoof clashes with his brand of realistic comedy that has become the toast of the film industry and the result is funny but lacking creatively--rather un-Apatowian. On the bright side Walk Hard’s best moments are ones he probably thought up namely an unexpected penis scene that’ll make you laugh-squirm and the tunes are so catchy--despite being laden with double entendres--that they and not the jokes will be stuck in your head. In fact the fake-song lyrics are as clever as Apatow dares to go. Direction-wise the movie like all spoofs doesn’t exactly require an Orson Welles to make it work but Kasdan does a solid job of separating the real from the faux. Plus the music scenes probably took more work than their comedy lets on. Otherwise though it’s not like there’s anything here to somehow render Kasdan superior to the Scary/Epic/Date Movie spoofers.