‘Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’

Vitaly the Tiger and Alex the LionMaybe the third time’s the charm, at least for me. I was just mild about the first two “Madagascar” cartoons from DreamWorks Animation. You could see all the effort everyone put into those movies including the voice actors but that was the problem — you could see the effort. The best cartoons seem effortless.

“Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” is easily the best of the series but I can only hope DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg keeps it at three.

The original idea that fueled the first two “Madagascar” cartoons has been abandoned. Yes, zoo animals, at least this animated bunch, can survive very nicely in the wild. For the third outing, the animators, headed by directors Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon, aim for pure slapstick silliness and gravity-defying stunts.

The now familiar animal team slams through three continents — Africa, Europe and then back to New York City, laying waste to much of Europe. This includes Monaco, which winds up looking like someone misrouted the Grand Prix through the Casino and most of its major hotels, and Rome, whose ruins now really deserve that appellation.

The time in Africa is brief, just enough to indicate the boredom of Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and how anxious they are make their way back to the Central Park Zoo. But it seems the penguins and chimps, who do all the flying for the group, have taken off on a gambling trip to the Monte Carlo Casino so first they must go to that principality to perform “Operation Penguin Extraction.”

Captain DuBois (Frances McDormand) in Madagascar 3(There is no explanation, by the way, of how the Zoosters get to Monte Carlo, which would seem to indicate they really don’t need the help of the penguins and chimps for their traveling arrangements. But then this is not the kind of movie where you want to question any of its internal logic because there isn’t any.)
The ensuing slapstick chase and destruction of much of the hillside town set the tone for the rest of the movie. It also introduces the series’ finest villain, an animal control officer Capitaine Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand), who is determined to stick a long sought-after lion’s head on her trophy wall. (She is drawn a bit like Cruella DeVil.)

She pursues them to Rome where to escape, the group is forced to spent their Casino winnings to buy the broken-down Circus Zaragosa headed by the Russian tiger Vitaly (Bryan Cranston) and featuring Stafano (Martin Short), an Italian sea lion, and Gia (Jessica Chastain), an Italian jaguar.

The trained performers only reluctantly accept their new comrades, as this circus is a very insular troupe. Each has issues to work out: Vitaly must regain his former confidence in leaping through fiery rings, Stafano doesn’t believe he’s very intelligent and Gia finds herself falling for the Alex. There is also a touchingly bizarre romance between a lemur — at least I think it’s a lemur — and a non-verbal but very large circus bear.

The animators mix almost non-stop action with crazy training sessions, musical numbers and performances under the big top as the circus makes its way to Switzerland, then London and finally NYC for a grand finale and final showdown with Capitaine DuBois.

Hans Zimmer keeps the music flowing throughout and the soundtrack even provides some of the more subtle gags such as the song “Born Free” on one occasion and the Capitaine rallying her severely injured animal control officers by singing Edith Piaf’s signature song “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.”

(Again the logic police might object to the film’s continual jokes about the Capitaine’s Frenchness when in fact she has to be Monégasque. Et bien.)

“Europe’s Most Wanted” is lots of fun, aimed mostly at children but no doubt will strike a responsive cord with the naughty inner child of many adults as well. But be forewarned: It’s as exhausting as it is exhilarating.

Opened: June 8 (Paramount Pictures)
Production companies: DreamWorks Animation SKG presents a PDI/DreamWorks production
Voice Cast: Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter, Frances McDormand, Bryan Cranston, Martin Short, Jessica Chastain, Paz Vega
Directors: Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, Conrad Vernon
Screenwriters: Eric Darnell, Noah Baumbach
Producers: Mireille Soria, Mark Swift
Production designer: Kendal Cronkhite-Shaindlin
Art direction: Shannon Jeffries
Music: Hans Zimmer
Editor: Nick Fletcher
PG rating, 93 minutes