Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted is a riot of splashy colors, silly 3-D gimmicks, big, broad kid-friendly gags — and those professionally pesky penguins.
And for adults, there's the charming spectacle of Oscar winner Frances McDormand giving voice to her inner Edith Piaf as she belts out "Non, je ne regrette rien" as a French-accented animal control officer.
The third film in this unlikely animated franchise takes those New York refugees from remote Africa, where they've been stranded, to Monte Carlo and other points in the eurozone as they try to get back to the friendly and confining Central Park Zoo.
It's repetitious, as animated sequels usually are. It's running low on new ideas, although some of the conclusions these critters — lion, zebra, hippo and giraffe — reach about their fates might surprise you.
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But it's also funny, a farce closer to Shrek the Third than, say, Toy Story 3.
We pick up the story of zoo escapees Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) in Africa, castaways since their fellow zoo escapees, the enterprising penguins, have taken off in their modified chimp-powered plane and promised to send help. The penguins are in Monte Carlo, where they've become high rollers — scamming the casinos, trashing the hotel rooms with feather-dusting pillow fights. ("These pillows are filled with body parts!")
Let us pause for a moment to appreciate the make-or-break-the-movies voice work by Tom McGrath, co-director of the Madagascar movies. He's not at the top of the bill, but his William Shatner/Robert Stack riff on the penguins' "Skipper" has become the most reliable laugh in film animation. Every penguin scene is hilarious — they were the only characters to get their own spin-off TV series. Every penguin punch line, even in the middle of a car chase, is a howl.
Alex, Marty, Gloria and Melman, King Julien & Co. have to make their own way to Monte Carlo. That's where they run afoul of the legendary Capt. Chantel DuBois (McDormand), a fanatic prone to sniffing around on all fours when she's tracing her quarry. She makes a terrific villain as she chases the unruly animals all over Europe after they break the bank at the casino and try to escape by hiding in a circus. That's where King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) of the lemurs meets his true love, a tutu-wearing, tricycle-riding bear.
The other new characters here are the circus animals who add little to the merriment, save for Martin Short, who voices Stefano the Italian-accented sea lion.
The main thrust of this comedy is "How are you going to keep our heroes in a zoo after they've tasted the excitement of the circus?" The relationships progress (Gloria and Melman have a thing going on) and the zoo animals, tested again and again in alien environments, keep weighing which is better — a life in captivity, where they're coddled and adored, or something more challenging.
Madagascar has always had that subtext, but it has been less about message and more about laughs. And Europe's Most Wanted, despite its shrinking ambitions and slow spots, delivers those — usually in a South Pole tuxedo.