After being shipped from New York to Madagascar, and then leaving Madagascar only to end up in Africa, Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) have a new game plan for getting home: Joining the circus. Will it get them back to America? This third entry in the franchise is easily the best of the bunch. Though that may not be saying much, parents hoping to not suffer will find lots to enjoy in this lightly likable film.

The Players:

The Plot:

The gang have been waiting in Africa for the penguins and monkeys to pick them up since the end of the last movie, and after a long wait the gang decide to go and meet them in Monte Carlo. When their reunion is interrupted by animal catcher Captain Chantel DuBois (McDormand), they end up crash-landing in a train yard, and it’s there where they lie about being in a circus to hitch a train ride. There they meet Vitaly (Cranston) and Gia (Chastain), and decide to buy the circus (the monkeys can pretend to be human). But the circus needs new energy, and if they do well they could get a ticket to America.

The Good:

  • Better: If you’ve watched the first two films, they’re just not very good. There’s some okay slapstick (and – to be fair – none were as bad as the Shrek sequels), but the films were nonsensical. Here they brought in writer/director Noah Baumbach to help with the scripting, and it seems to have risen everyone’s game. The jokes are funny, the film is happy to let the narrative be driven with less regards of giving everyone a sub-plot, and the tone, which verges on complete silliness is maintained. There’s a number of weird. great jokes in the film, from Chantel raising her staff from their hospital beds by singing ‘La Vie en Rose,’ to business with why Vitaly’s such a grumpy tiger. Martin Short gets one of the best lines in the film: “They went crazy because it’s literally impossible.”
  • Moves: The film is 85 minutes long, but that’s not because it’s hastily thrown together. For a third film in a series, it’s nice to see that success (such as it is) hasn’t resulted in these films getting bloated. Perhaps they’ve gotten better as they’ve made them, but this is just a well-paced film that never gets too bogged down in the sort of obvious narrative it has (the main characters lied about being circus performers, so there will be the big reveal), while supporting players like Sacha Baron Cohen‘s King Julien are used sparingly to maximum impact.
  • Trilogy: There’s a three act structure to both this film, and now the franchise as they actually do close out the film on a note that suggests that this has been a three film journey for the characters. And though we may see more adventures, this is a good closing note for the characters, which is surprising for a Dreamworks animated franchise.

The Bad:

  • The Music: Though this doesn’t rely on “I Like to Move it (Move it)” as much as the first two films did, there’s a lot of pop music in this one, all of which are ear-worms. And if you take kids, expect them to sing about Afros and circuses for a long time afterwards.
  • No Subtext: Okay, this is something I’d like to note. The first two films functioned as allegories about homosexuality. In the first film the lion lives in New York with his best friend the zebra, and when they go back to the wild, they’re told that their relationship is unnatural. In the second film, the lion meets his family – who thinks he’s tough – but don’t know that he performs on Broadway, and so Alex has to come out to his parents that he’s a dancer. I am not making this up. The second film takes the idea of the naturalness of unnatural pairings further by having the hippo and giraffe fall in love. It may be telling that Alex doesn’t exactly enter into a relationship with Gia in this film, but – smartly for this film – this doesn’t seem as character-driven as the first two movies, so none of that is as present. It’s hard to say if that was smuggling by the filmmakers, or a byproduct of artists not paying attention, but it’s there in the films if you look for it. That was one of the only things to like about the first two films, though, so it’s not so much missed as suspiciously absent.

Overall:

Where it feels like Pixar swings for the fences, I feel like Dreamworks has always been happy with getting on base. This is a good film, one of the best they’ve done, and it’s a breezy light romp that manages some good set pieces, laughs and has the staying power of wet paper.

Rating: 7.5/10

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted hits theaters June 8. Check it out.

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