Sunday, July 10, 2005


I just got back from taking J and L to see Dreamworks new animated feature Madagascar. It’s not bad, though it’s fair to say my expectations were fairly low, and I must admit I had reservations about seeing it at all, given the premise. Madagascar is a place that I’m keen to visit – an oasis of spectacularly unique and unusual wildlife - so for that reason, I was always going to find this film disappointing.

The focus of the film is a group of four African animals (albeit with some penguins and monkeys along for comic relief), and Madagascar seems to be merely a device, an incidental backdrop for some of their interactions. To have Madagascar, a fairly overpopulated island with massive overclearing problems, treated as a mythical last wilderness seems to me absurd, though the jungle backgrounds are beautifully executed with a high degree of research and detail evident.

The film opens in the depressing environs of the Manhattan Central Park Zoo, which has tiny barred enclosures that look like something out of the Victorian era but make no sense in terms of containing the animals (such logic apparently isn’t important to the film). The animals, particularly Alex the lion, are treated purely as entertainments and Marty the Zebra finds his 10th birthday a depressing and cathartic turning point. Gloria the hippo (the film’s only female animal character) and Melman, the hyperchondriac giraffe, perform the primary supporting roles to the volatile friendship of Alex and Marty.

Like all Dreamworks animations, this film is primarily a male buddy movie, though the main characters are unfortunately underdeveloped, with the emphasis being on wisecracks and slapstick humour (fairly well-done if that’s your thing). While the computer animation has a very artificial storybook look to it – Alex’s paws seem oddly as if they’re cut out of gingerbread at times – the character designs are excellent, and this stylisation works in the story’s favour.

The captivity aspect of the Zoo has some clever echoes, with the animals thinking themselves in San Diego Zoo’s leafy havens at one point, and Alex putting himself back into captivity at a later stage (a neat psychological touch). My favourite sequence is the imaginative crate scene, which finds the four main characters in effectively separate frames on screen – making clever use of the format and seeming like a living comic book.

Alongside this, the grouping of sundry lemur (and other) species into a massive conglomerate of partying morons, chanting “I Like to Move it, Move it,” is an unedifying spectacle. There are touches here that show what another film might have been like. The central team of a ringtailed lemur leader (thanklessly performed by Ali G), an aye-aye sidekick and a cute mouse lemur have a lot of promise, but little chance to deliver on it. Signs of both imagination and research are present, primarily in the streaked tenrec, geckoes and chameleon, but the film-makers' thoughts are ever far from Madagascar itself.

Possibly, the worst aspect is the casting of the “foosas” as hyena-like, ravening, speechless marauders, swarming in a ridiculously enormous predatory crowd. The fossa (or fosa) is a rather large member of the civet family, indigenous to Madagascar, always in low numbers and now critically endangered. It’s a solitary and wary hunter, always seldom seen (not to be confused with the fanaloka, a smaller striped civet which has the scientific name, fossa fossa). At any rate, “foosas” get a raw deal as the obligatory baddies in a scenario which is actually trying to raise questions about carnivores.

Worst of all, the entire film gives no hint of the desperate environmental situation of Madagascar and its remarkable wildlife. Maybe it’s too much to expect of a film, but somehow the title and setting seem to me expedient and meaningless. The central story – that of buddy team Alex and Marty – could as well have been told in the backwoods of some American setting with no loss to the story at all.

I’d hate to think this was people’s only impression of Madagascar. There are now many excellent books on the place and its wildlife. As a general travel book to start with, I’d recommend The Lonely Planet Guide to Madagascar.

All in all, Madagascar is an okay family film, with some fairly entertaining sequences, but far from a classic.

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Sounds like MTV meets feeding time at the zoo.

Personally I find computer animation a little sterile after growing up with the depth of colour and the magnificent scenery of some of the old labor-intensive style of drawn animation.
I don't mind computer animation and it's definitely the right way to do certain things (I'm definitely sold on Dillon doing Batrisha this way, even though I love the look of the comics).

However, I'm sorry that all the studios seem to have completely abandoned the traditional drawn approach altogether. It's that old thing - lots of alternatives, but no choice - when having different approaches would be the best thing for the continuing artform.

With Madagascar I think they got it right in terms of not trying to emulate reality too much, instead making the characters still very "designed" and cartoonish. I must admit I found The Polar Express downright disturbing to watch!

I also think the integrated approach - drawn and computer together - still has enormous merit, as scenes from Help! I'm a Fish and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron atest. The major studios are all uniformly throwing the baby out with the bathwater apparently.
Yes, but did your kids enjoy it??
Yes, but did your kids enjoy it??

Jase, good point! Yes, indeed they did :). I wonder what sort of review they'd write?...
Hi Ian, I just read your post about Madagascar and wondered if you saw Sin City. Sin City is absolutely not for kids, rated R, and very violent and grim, but I think it did a very good job of recreating the stark black and white look that Frank Miller uses in the books of the same name. I just wondered if you had seen it, and if you thought that it hit the mark with the feel.
Thinking a bit more on this, one problem I can see with kids' films and TV, is that they're generally accepting and not really critical, so they can be given some real garbage.

This isn't the case with Madagascar which certainly has its merits.

Jacquelynn, Sin City is a really interesting case! Just as I was getting fed up with Frank Miller not getting credited on films that have used his work, here's one that really does it by the book and credits him!

Margaret and David on At the Movies gave it 4 and 4 1/2 stars out of 5 - amazing marks -
and among other things said that it had the best use of CGI ever. Today, Adrian Martin in The Age (another fine reviewer), gave it 1 star, citing its brainlessness, mechanical duplication of the graphic novel and regressive sexual politics. Who knows, maybe they're all right ;).
I haven’t seen Madagascar yet. But what I can gather from the preview I saw months ago, is that they’re thinking too much in a drawing 2d kind of way with these kids animations. What they need to be doing is thinking in a sculptural 3d way. Afterall they are sculptures and not drawings. Textures seem to be one of the most important elements of this. So you can’t compare the old drawn cartoons and these new 3D animated ones. I think if you want to see it done right look at the ‘Incredibles’. They looked like little plastic dolls with dolls hair (In most scenes you could make out all the individual hairs!) it was really well done. So I’d agree about not trying to make them look real it’s just too freaky, make them look like plasticine or plastic or felt etc.
The Incredibles was just brilliant! It had everything - a brilliant script full of pathos with some satire, an excellent gender balance (amazing!), beautiful design and animation, top soundtrack and a great, well-told story. I agree with you that the look of the characters was right - they look good in stills, but animated they're perfect!
We are trying to find good family guy movie to take the kids this weekend. Good family guy movie reviews are hard to find

I just stumbled onto your blog while looking. Seems to happen to me a lot since I am a knowledge mooch LOL

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