Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted: Cirque de Berserk

This DreamWorks animated sequel pushes cartoon mayhem to its insane apogee

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Paramount Pictures / DreamWorks

Why did the Disney animated classics unspool at feature-length, while the great Warner Bros. cartoons clocked in at just seven minutes? Because films like Pinocchio told dramatic stories through pictures, and the exploits of Bugs, Daffy and Sylvester were vignettes of comic catastrophe. To sustain that pace for an hour and a half would be exhausting, both for the Warners directors and their fans. Chuck Jones’ Road Runner cartoons, like Fast and Furry-ous and Zoom and Bored, are masterpieces of minimalist humor. Stretch them to 80 or 90 minutes, and you get 80 or 90 variations on the same theme: Coyote hatches a plan, executes it and goes BOOOOM!, in a Groundhog Day loop of humiliating failures. Some great treats are designed to come in small packages.

Jones acknowledged this, and found fault with the 1988 Who Framed Roger Rabbit because it applied the rigorously violent rules of cartoon shorts to a mostly animated film that ran or galloped for 104 minutes. I too was wearied by director Robert Zemeckis’ nonstop exertions; what began as lunatic inspiration eventually devolved into water torture. Yet there I was a few weeks ago, at the Cannes Film Festival, braving the even more remorseless comic assault of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted and somehow enjoying it.

(READ: Corliss’ tribute to Chuck Jones)

O.K., part of my response may have been the DreamWorks movie’s polar distance from the typical Cannes selection, where every character is miserable in slow motion — the kind of film experience that, as somebody once said, is like watching pain dry. But I also thought that Madagascar 3, directed by Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon, boldly and gaily sustained the madcap momentum for the whole of its eighty-few minutes.

Again we have the four domesticated beasts from Manhattan’s Central Park Zoo — Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) — who go on odd adventures. Last time they found a happy abode and some new friends in Africa. But the homesick Alex hears “New York, New York” calling him, and lands in Europe with his three old pals plus King Julien the lemur (Sacha Baron Cohen) and hordes of mischievous monkeys and penguins.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa)

Why Europe? Because each Madagascar movie needs a different setting; and because the continent, with folks of many nationalities to make gentle mock of, has already served as the excuse for such earlier sequels as National Lampoon’s European Vacation and Pixar’s Cars 2. And why may the Mad menagerie never go home for good? Because home is boring, and domestic contentment a snooze. That’s why there was never a Wizard of Oz sequel called Dorothy Stays in Kansas.

In Monte Carlo, the gang is corralled into an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist gone horribly wrong. On the run from the vindictive animal-wrangler Chantel duBois (Frances McDormand), they hide out with a traveling circus modeled on Cirque du Soleil — except that Cirque has no animals, and this one is only animals: the sexy jaguar Gia (Jessica Chastain) and the cowardly sea lion Stefano (Martin Short) and the Siberian tiger Vitaly (Bryan Cranston), who’s as proud as Ivan the Terrible and as truculent as Putin the Terribler.

(LIST: Find a DreamWorks cartoon on the 25 all-TIME Best Animated Features

Darnell and McGrath, who also directed the first two Madagascar movies, have learned that nothing succeeds like excess, so they don’t bother with down-time scenes that would let the audience catch its collective breath. Nor do they worry that the typhoon of pop-culture references may elude some viewers. At first, the comic tone is archer than the McDonald’s logo; parts of Mad 3 are reminiscent of such strenuously zany mid-’60s farces as What’s New Pussycat, Help and the Casino Royale parody. Then the picture goes truly nuts and approaches the comic surrealism of a very early Warners cartoon gem, Bob Clampett’s 1938  Porky in Wackyland. Only in 3-D, with fireworks and magical flying circuses. It’s a true Cirque de Berserk.

For those who suspect that Mad 3 would be similar in ambition to Cars 2 — a transparent play for the European movie market, and a feature-length product placement for toys that continental parents are expected to buy for their kids — surprise! The script by Darnell and indie-acerbic auteur Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) takes pleasure in mocking the very moviegoers it’s ostensibly courting, as when someone says of Europeans, “They only have to work two weeks a year” (and another replies, just to annoy our North American neighbors, “So, they have the Canadian work ethic”).

(LIST: Which animated film is No. 1 on Corliss’s 10 Greatest Movies of the Millennium?)

Mad 3 doesn’t exactly belong in the animation Hall of Fame. What King Julien says of himself — “I’m just an emotional whoopee cushion for you to sit on” — is equally true of this psy-comic sequel. I don’t know what Chuck Jones would think of this, since the great man died in 2002. But I have to give props to a movie that ascends from eccentricity to insanity without losing its footing, In circus terms, it’s like a guy who’s shot out of a cannon and lands on a high wire in a perfect pirouette.

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