It is rather surprising to find the name of The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg director Noah Baumbach as the co-writer of the third animated adventure about urban zoo critters in the wilderness, again handled by original directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath with the help of veteran Conrad Vernon. Not because it's an animation - Mr. Baumbach performed similar duties in Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox - but because it's a bland, rather predictable and utterly dismaying film.

     The Madagascar movies have always followed the Dreamworks house style of rapid-fire, pop-culture stand-up comedy gags hanging off a threadbare washing-line plot, but at least the gags were funny and fast enough to keep one watching. This third episode does feature a more rounded plot, with the heroes stranded in Europe due to the penguins' gambling high-jinks and forced to whip a derelict circus run by a dreamy sea lion into Cirque du Soleil shape as their ticket back to New York City. But it's a sadly uninspired, tiresome, "let's put on a circus" plot that clashes loudly with the fizzy, fast-moving animation. You can sense Mr. Baumbach's preoccupation with family and belonging peeking through the script, but the film's forced jauntiness and breakneck rhythm basically drops any pretense at meaningfulness or character development; why bring in a noted screenwriter and then bury his contribution?

     It's all the more baffling as both the animation and the voice work remain pitch-perfect, with a couple of outstanding visual set-pieces worth the admission price alone, and an absurdist twist in the introduction of a new, Disney-ish villainess, the animal control officer who chases the animals throughout Europe voiced by Frances McDormand. Her over-the-top creepiness is such she becomes a bizarre comic relief, leading Madagascar 3 into a rabbit hole of brilliantly rhythmical offbeat nonsense that the remainder of the plot is, however, too muted and meek to support.

     What comes out of this is one of those films - so typical in modern-day Hollywood - that doesn't really have a reason to exist other than to fill the coffers of its producing studio. It's true that neither of the previous Madagascar films was brilliant, but in their own way they were lively, disposable time-passers. Third time out, however, is a strikeout, the loveliness replaced by a going-through-the-motions feel that suggest it's about time Alex the lion, Marty the zebra, Gloria the hippo, Melman the giraffe, Julien the lemur and all the others retired to live happily ever after.

With the voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric The Entertainer, Andy Richter, Tom McGrath, Jessica Chastain, Bryan Cranston, Martin Short, Frances McDormand

Directors: Eric Darnell, Conrad Vernon, Tom McGrath 
Screenplay: Mr. Darnell, Noah Baumbach
Cinematography consultant: Guillermo Navarro
Music: Hans Zimmer
Designer: Kendal Cronkite-Shaindlin
Editor: Nick Fletcher
Producers: Mireille Soria, Mark Swift (Dreamworks Animation)
USA, 2012, 93 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 1 (Lisbon), July 20th 2012


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