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.
Even while defying modern filmmaking techniques with a monochromatic palette and soundscape of silence The Artist is as conventional as they come. That's not entirely a gripe—director Michel Hazanavicius' takes a simplistic approach to storytelling paving the easiest path for his cinematic playground. The movie wears its intentions on its sleeve—The Artist is a technical exercise first movie second—but the result is undeniably pleasant. Few will be safe from the movie's bombardment of silent but deadly charm.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a film actor working in 1920's Hollywood. He's a regular Douglas Fairbanks—a swashbuckling hunk who can smirk swagger and dance his way through any motion picture. His boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) can't get enough of him his current co-star Constance (Missi Pyle) can't steal his spotlight his fans fill the red carpet clamoring for just one lucky snapshot and he's got a dog friend that might just be the most adorable thing on the planet. At that moment in time Valentin can't be topped.
But like all good things in a straightforward dramedy Valentin's cloud nine career slowly begins to fall apart. He meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) a budding actresses to whom Valentin quickly takes a liking. Their relationship grows professionally and romantically (albeit with distance—Valentin does have an unhappy wife after all) but as the era of silent pictures wanes in favor of talkies so does Valentin's popularity. Peppy becomes the next big thing and her success leaves Valentin broke and in the dust.
Hazanavicius creates a Frankenstein's monster out of his film history knowledge employing every trick in the silent film book to make The Artist shine. The writer/director digs just deep enough into Valentin's plight—a bumpy road intrinsically connected to its the medium—then lets whimsy of nostalgia do the heavy emotional lifting. Ludovic Bource's bouncy orchestral score and Guillaume Schiffman's cinematography add to the general niceness of The Artist complementing Dujardin's irresistible smile with their own intangible artistry.
And Dujardin deserves a real tip of the top hat delivering the heightened movements of Valentin with the utmost precision. His English co-stars don't have a terrible amount to do other than stand around wagging their fingers (one of the limitations of the medium) but Goodman Bejo and James Cromwell as Valentin's faithful driver Clifton are as good as thespian finger-waggers come. But even with all the happy-go-lucky antics and memories of a time forgotten The Artist remains lean. The movie's unable to overcome the technical constraints and cookie-cutter plot line to imbue any character—Valentin included—with anything remotely human. Each character is just a pawn Hazanavicius stylistic scheme.
The Artist is 100 minutes of toe-tapping entertainment a sugary sweet treat that feels all the more fresh in the current hyperactive cinema-scape. Though much like the silent era itself once the curtain closes on The Artist your attention may quickly turn to the next big thing.