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.
If no one kills themselves while watching Little Fockers this weekend it will be a Christmas miracle. Sure there have been some bad films so far this year but none will make you long for the merciful touch of the Grim Reaper upon your shoulder like the latest entrant in the Meet the Parents saga. And this is coming from someone who actually enjoys the original film (and reluctantly tolerates the second).
Looking on the sunny side of things however at least Little Fockers is the best alien invasion film of 2010. I mean that is the narrative here right? Pod people have taken over the lives of the Fockers and the Byrnes replacing their once moderately charming attempts at bumbling-based comedy with some kind of extra-terrestrial anti-comedy designed to test the patience of normal human beings. That's the only rational defense of the film I can think of. Surely no one who actually lives on planet Earth thinks that you can fashion a complete motion picture — particularly one starring Robert De Niro Ben Stiller Teri Polo Blythe Danner Owen Wilson Harvey Keitel Laura Dern and yes even Jessica Alba — out of nothing but a chain that interlinks the most face-palming no-one-acts-like-that misunderstandings possible with repeated fart barf and penis humor.
Grandpa Jack (De Niro) is getting to be an old man so he tells son-in-law Gaylord Focker that he needs to take over as the Godfocker. This piece of information is the alien code word that turns the previously-normal Gaylord into Pod Person Gaylord. He instantly begins to act out of character deciding for no clear reason that his twin five-year olds who have a fast-approaching birthday must now attend a prestigious private school that is way out of the family's budget. Pod Gaylord then decides to give in to pharmaceutical representative Jessica Alba's flirting and become a spokesperson for an erectile dysfunction drug.
Meanwhile Owen Wilson has re-entered the lives of the Fockers as Pod Kevin a world-travelling philosophically-confused twit whom everyone worships for no apparent reason. Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman are back as well as Roz and Bernie Focker with the former now being the host of a talk show about sex toys and the latter suffering from a bout of "manopause" that finds him in Spain learning to be a World Class flamenco dancer. How does the re-integration of these three characters pay off exactly? Well Grandpa Jack wants to convince his daughter and happily married mother of his two grandchildren to divorce Pod Gaylord and marry Pod Kevin. Pod Roz's free-spirited theories about sex result in Pod Grandpa Jack getting an erection for five-and-a-half hours (and don't think for a second you'll be spared the image of an erect penis in Robert De Niro's pants). As for Bernie Focker ... well that one's tricky. As near as I can tell the only reason his character is conceived as being obsessed with the flamenco is so he can later inexplicably dance with a jiggly bra-clad Jessica Alba for approximately six seconds.
I'd apologize for that being a poor summary of the premise of Little Fockers but it's sadly an incredibly accurate one. There's no plot here. It's just a collection of scenes that ineptly fit together solely because they have the same people in them. And if this material is what passes for a feature film I cannot even fathom what the deleted scenes on the DVD will look like.
The crime here isn't even the bad (and often childish) jokes it's that all of the adults involved appear to have suddenly forgotten how to tell jokes at all. Words just tumble out of the actors' mouths never ever finding purchase with the audience. But that's okay because as soon as one gag arrives stillborn director Paul Weitz (who is taking over for previous series auteur Jay Roach) and screenwriters John Hamburg and Larry Stuckey will break their necks trying to turn their attention to the next bit of hilarity. And the most astounding thing — the clincher that will make you want to stick a gun in your mouth — is that despite running from scene-to-scene as fast as possible Little Fockers feels like it's never going to end. You may think that it'll be passable light entertainment at just 98 minutes but you dangerously forget that these are 98 minutes of alien anti-comedy which equate to over 9000 minutes of human failure.
When ordered to fire a long-time janitor named Stavi (Luis Avalos) Steve Barker (Johnny Knoxville) softens the blow by hiring him to mow the lawn at his apartment complex. Steve didn't provide him with health insurance so Stavi naturally loses a few fingers in a mowing accident and now it'll cost thousands to save the digits. What's a guy to do? Why of course fix the Special Olympics—a suggestion of Steve's degenerate uncle Gary (Brian Cox) who's also in the financial dumps. Former track star Steve reluctantly goes along with the scam and competes in the Special Olympics. His competitors are quick to pick up on his ruse but they decide to help him after Steve explains his motive. He must also try not to disappoint Lynn (Katherine Heigl) the beautiful volunteer who doesn't know of his real identity. What's a guy to do? Take the high road of course. Certainly Knoxville—of Jackass infamy and debauchery—would have no moral trepidation about headlining offensive exploitative crap like The Ringer but stardom beckons him if he only he stops aiming so damn low! His performance here was probably not as easy as it'd seem but it's reasonable to think that Jackass stunts involving a bottle of absinthe and some paper cuts to the cornea quickly eliminated any butterflies. What Knoxville has in spades is that rare charisma to prevent him from ever looking uncool. Then there's Cox the latest revered journeyman to sell his soul on the cheap for a role completely beneath him. Mostly disabled actors round out the cast uttering any and all funny lines but there's something fundamentally wrong when the audience erupts in laughter before the lines are even delivered. Though the Farrelly brothers—directors of There's Something About Mary and Dumb & Dumber--only acted as executive producers of The Ringer their lowbrow stamp is smeared all over. Directing chores were handed over to Barry Blaustein prolific writer of comedies like Coming to America making his feature directorial debut. The Ringer delivers on its promise of frat-dude humor and Blaustein certainly knows how to make his leading man shine—but it does so in cheap sophomoric ways.
Sultry culinary genius Isabella (Penélope Cruz) leads an idyllic life running a seaside restaurant in Brazil with her husband Toninho (Murilo Benício) - until she finds Toninho in bed with another woman that is. Heartbroken she heads off to San Francisco and immediately finds work as -- what else? -- the host of a TV cooking show. Screwball comedy complications ensue as a prayer to a Brazilian goddess goes awry Isabella's show becomes a hit and a penitent Toninho arrives to try and win his wife back.
Perma-pouting Spanish dish Cruz ("All About My Mother") is a solid actress with an excess of on-screen charisma but she isn't particularly well served by her first Hollywood starring vehicle. Hampered by their thick accents she and hunky Brazilian co-star Benício ("Orfeu") fight their way through hokey exchanges that have no business being in English anyway. (The whole film would have gone down more smoothly in Brazil's romantic tongue Portuguese.) Of the supporting players Harold Perrineau ("The Best Man") generates the most sparks putting a surprisingly fresh spin on one of the more tired modern screen clichés: the strapping black drag queen.
Venezuelan-born helmer Fina Torres ("Celestial Clockwork") adopts the candy-shop approach to commercial storytelling packing her film with enough sexy stars bright South American colors and tangy bossa nova tunes to distract viewers from the lame predictability of Vera Blasi's script. Pinching ingredients from the Mexican food-and-sex smash "Like Water For Chocolate " the filmmakers cobble together a passable romantic fantasy in the Latin American magical-realist tradition. Too bad most of the comedy falls flatter than a Brazilian crèpe.