See enough movies, especially ones geared to the younger set, and you all but stop expecting to be surprised by the arc of the plot; our heroes will learn valuable Life Lessons, generally while embarking on A Perilous Journey, good will triumph over evil, the comforts of home, family, and friends will prove more beguiling than any possible adventure, yada yada yada. The joy - the shock - of the new computer-animated comedy Madagascar is that, from scene to scene, you might find yourself having no clue where events will lead, yet you're laughing too hard to pay the matter much mind.
In basic outline, Dreamworks' Madagascar is traditional CGI entertainment along the lines of Shrek, and it features most of the elements we've come to expect: a big-name cast doing knowing riffs on their familiar personas, gastro-intestinal gags for that "edgy" pre-teen quality, and pop references aplenty, complete with at least one sequence in whcih the film's characters shake their animated booties to whatever single topped the charts when filming began. Yet the film has a friskiness of spirit that has been sorely lacking from Dreamworks' other CGI experiments; finally, the studio has crafted an animated work where the primary goal is being funny rather than hip, and legitimately clever rather than merely pop-culture knowing. Dreamworks might never rival Pixar in terms of visual, comedic, and emotional wizardry, but Madagascar is hugely enjoyable, easily the studio's finest CGI offering yet. It's poised to be a big, fat hit, and, to my mind, is the first of Dreamworks' digitally designed comedies to deserve blockbuster status.
What's most surprising about Madagascar is how completely it thwarts its predicted narrative thrust, especially considering the familiarity of the storyline. Our hero is a zebra named Marty (voiced by Chris Rock), a denizen of the Central Park Zoo who longs for life in "the wild." His friends, led by the egocentric lion Alex (Ben Stiller), are more than happy in their urban containment, yet after a foiled escape attempt at Grand Central Station - which provides the first of the film's many reversals of expectations - the confused animals find themselves shipped across the ocean anyway, landing in the confusing wilderness of Madagascar. What started off as a search for a new, exciting world quickly becomes a struggle to get back to their familiar terrain in New York; Madagascar becomes a Wizard of Oz in which the travelers would be perfectly satisfied to never encounter the Wizard at all.
And there's even another sharp, nearly subversive twist. In this land where humans no longer serve him steaks on a regular basis, Alex, against his wishes, begins to be overtaken by his carnivorous side; he visualizes his compadres as walking sirloins waiting to be devoured, and must refrain from devouring them himself. By this time, you've been so delighted by the unpredictability of the plotting that Alex's character reversal comes as genuinely involving, and you can't foresee how the movie will resolve itself: Will Alex learn the error of his meat-eating ways, or will he realize that Madagascar, and a life of consuming those he used to consider friends, is his true calling?
I was more caught up in Madagascar's storyline than I have been at most of the year's live-action works, yet if the film were to shuck its narrative completely and merely content itself with being funny, it would still be a blast. Of course, as per usual with a Dreamworks animated opus, a familiarity with other movies will help. Yet while most of the movie-within-a-movie references will still fly over the heads of children, they've rarely been as well-thought-out as they are here; a Planet of the Apes gag is about as satisfying as you could want, and the movie's American Beauty dream sequence is a piece of pure gaga inspiration. Best of all, Madagascar's characters have been designed to be amusing despite the actor's interpretations. The characters aren't completely married to the artists portraying them, which helped sabotage the studio's Shark Tale. As a result, voice-over performers such as David Schwimmer and Andy Richter are more entertaining than they've been in ages, and although it often seems that they're in every other comedy Hollywood releases, the badinage between Stiller and Rock is so entertaining that you actually look forward to their eventual live pairing. Madagascar is a nearly continuous hoot, and I haven't even referenced the movie's continual onslaught of throwaway gags that should leave even the most humorless viewer giggling. When one of the film's talking chimps, eager to see the sights with a friend, notes excitedly that "Tom Wolfe is speaking at Lincoln Center!" the gag is so bizarrely, randomly perfect that you almost miss its actual punchline: "Of course we're going to throw poo at him."
THE LONGEST YARD
My memories of the 1974 original aren't that sharp, so there's little point in my trying to compare Robert Aldrich's The Longest Yard with the current retooling starring Adam Sandler. One thing's for certain, though: This new version certainly feels like it's set in 1974. It isn't, of course; like Madagascar, it's filled with of-the-moment - well, of-the-last-five-moments - pop references and the pushy product placement we're accustomed to in Sandler's oeuvre. (McDonald's is the beneficiary this time around.) Yet while there's nothing inherently wrong with Sandler remaking the famed Burt Reynolds testosterone vehicle as a grating, obvious summer blockbuster, the film seems almost perversely out of touch. You can see how this Longest Yard could have worked, in an Anchorman sort of way, if it had parodied 1974 stereotypes regarding people of color and gays and women and figures of authority. But setting this version in the present day just makes its attitudes seem hateful. When director Peter Segal trots out the towering, simple-minded black man or the uber-swishy male cheerleaders as figures of ridicule, you might wish to avert your eyes in embarrassment, because the characters haven't been integrated into any jokes; they are the jokes. The Longest Yard isn't sending up a 1974 mindset so much as paying homage to one. I'm used to Sandler's movies being unfunny, yet except for a few of Chris Rock's line deliveries, The Longest Yard is both unfunny and humiliating. It looks and sounds better than most of Sandler's type-A comedies, but technical progress doesn't much aid a movie that's this backwards.
Director Danny Boyle generally uses his stylization as a means to freak or creep us out, but who would have guessed that Boyle's penchant for zooms and rapid cutting and other means of visual trickery would find perfect outlet in Millions, a sweet, touching tale of a boy hoping to become a saint? Graced with a simple, tender script by Frank Cottrell Boyne, Millions is a slight thing - perhaps too slight - but it's honest, engaging, and often funny, and Boyle has the talent and imagination to make a child's goodness seem like a state of grace.