When I was sixteen years old, I went on one of my first dates ever. I took a girl I met on the bus to the indie theater near her house (I went to a magnet school that pulled from around the county, so she actually lived pretty far away). We went to go see Madagascar, which I figured would be pretty harmless.
The date went horrible. We were both nervous and barely talked to each other. I spilled my large soda all over my pants. And, again, we watched fucking Madagascar. I had “I like to move it move it” stuck in my head for weeks. There was no second date.
I haven’t seen the movie in the 17+ years since. (Typing that sentence, it dawned on me that that date was literally more than half my life ago. Wow.) And so with the still-bitter taste of my high school angst in my mouth, I shared Madagascar with my kids. And while I cannot say that it is a good movie, it’s certainly better than it was when I had sticky Dr. Pepper stains on my khakis. Some of the things I remember hating, I actually kind of liked this time.
Madagascar is the story of a bunch of New York zoo animals who bumble their way to the titular island, where they encounter a kooky tribe of lemurs and confront their own animal instincts. That’s basically it, actually. And that’s part of what turned me off the movie in the past: Compared to, say, Shrek, this is a pretty shapeless film. It’s a journey, but not really a quest. I’m much more into low-conflict, meandering narratives these days than I was as a teenager, so its leisurely pace drew me in.
Some of the thematic content that takes the place of plot momentum is interesting and creative. It does some gentle deconstruction of the logic of kids films, where animals of all species are chums, whereas they would be on competing links of the food chain in real life. The movie slowly builds the joke that Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) wants to eat his best friend Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), pairing that carnivorous impulse with Alex’s growing resentment of Marty for getting the animals kicked out of the zoo and Alex losing his cushy life. You only have to squint a little bit for this to seem clever.
Sacha Baron Cohen provides the vocal performance for King Julien the lemur, and his off-kilter energy provides an electric jolt to the film. Calling something an “electric jolt” is not intrinsically positive, and, sure enough, Julien’s aggressively peculiar shtick grows grating from time to time, but it’s still the only comic element here that’s even a little bit bracing. In general, the joke hit rate is far too low for this to be any sort of classic comedy, but there are a few laughs — the penguins, in particular, are a hoot as overzealous spy riffs. I also loved a throwaway about a police horse giving directions.
The majority of the vocal performances are thoroughly average: Stiller is unremarkable; Rock leans so hard into his affectation it almost breaks the film; Jada Pinkett Smith gets some good line deliveries as Gloria the hippo, but also makes the whole performance sound like an eye roll. Only David Schwimmer among the leads, as Melman the giraffe, sounds like he put in some effort figuring out how to bring some genuine personality to the voice acting. Most of the supporting performances, including Cohen, are quite good, though.
The animation is… well, it’s a Dreamworks movie from 2005. I think that speaks for itself. It’s ugly and primitive; a little bit stylized with some decent character designs and bright colors and playful rigging, but mostly just uncanny and blocky. Looking back, it’s peculiar how I never processed these movies as ugly or insufficient in any way until I started seeing Pixar’s strides in photorealism a few years later.
In all, Madagascar never crosses the threshold to good; in fact, it is pretty much the quintessential mid 2000s Dreamworks movie, which is not a compliment. But it’s definitely watchable. My daughters had a blast; I had a pretty good time, too.
There are a couple of interesting stories in the production of Madagascar. My favorite: Apparently a whole subplot of Gloria the hippo being pregnant and Melman the giraffe being in love with her was cut late into production. It got to the point of test screenings — I’m wondering if any of those scenes are on the DVD. But test audiences thought it was too adult in tone, and the Dreamworks execs worried they’d get a PG-13 rating with the zoo breeding innuendos, so it got axed.
The directing duo of Tom McGrath and Eric Darnell would remain reliable craftsmen for Dreamworks in the years to come. Both worked on the two Madagascar sequels (which I’ve never seen). Darnell took on the Penguins of Madagascar spinoff, while McGrath would eventually tackle three projects I have a soft spot for: Over the Hedge and the two wacky Boss Baby movies.
Just as Dreamworks was only a couple of years away from making much better films than Madagascar, so was I not far from much better first dates. About a year later, I took a different girl to a different theater. We saw Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. That time, there was a second date; in fact, we just celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary.