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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


One of the coolest moviegoing experiences I've ever had came this past summer, while I was on vacation in Ocean City, MD. A giant inflatable screen was set up on the beach and they showed Madagascar while everyone sat on their blankets and lawn chairs on the sand. I'd seen Madagascar and enjoyed it upon the initial release, but had forgotten how funny it was until I saw it again. The minor flaws - specifically a meandering story that didn't really go anywhere - were still apparent, though. The sequel, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, is a good example of a follow-up improving upon its original. Not only is it even funnier than the first one, it also has a much tighter plot.

You may recall that our heroes - lion Alex (Ben Stiller), zebra Marty (Chris Rock), hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett-Smith), and giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) - were New York Zoo animals who accidentally found themselves in the wilds of Madagascar. At the end of the picture, they still hadn't made their way back home. The sequel finds them boarding the wreckage of an airplane that has been reassembled by penguins and lemurs. They think it will fly them back to New York. Joining the voyage is King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen), the lemur who likes to move it, move it, and his sidekick Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer).

The plane, of course, doesn't really fly so well, and the animals crash land in an African wildlife reservation, where Alex is reunited with his long-lost father Zuba (Bernie Mac). Zuba is the leader of the tribe, but another lion, Makunga (Alec Baldwin), has a plan to oust him and seize control. (It's funny because Makunga actually looks like Alec Baldwin; I kept expecting him to say, "Lemon…!") After Alex fails to pass the tribe's initiation - which indirectly leads to his father's rival taking over - he realizes he can redeem himself by replenishing the local water supply, which has mysteriously dried up. This involves going off the reservation, into territory filled with hunters. Fortunately, he's got a lot of backup.

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa does a smart thing: it builds on the characters. It's a nice twist to have Alex the "showbiz" lion try to prove himself in a wilderness tribe, where his performance skills are out of place. Marty, meanwhile, struggles with identity. He discovers that there's nothing setting him apart from all the other zebras in Africa. (That Rock provides the voice for hundreds of them is one of the best gags.) Hypochondriac Melman, believing he's about to die, finally decides to profess his love for Gloria, only to discover that she's caught the eye of a burly male lothario hippo (hip-hop musician The sequel takes each character and puts him/her in a subplot that allows their specific personality traits to be tested. For that reason, they seem more fully dimension on this go-round.

The picture also has a higher laugh ratio than its admittedly humorous predecessor did. It's become a cliché to say that animated movies have "just enough jokes thrown in for the adults," but Madagascar: Back 2 Africa has jokes for adults that are genuinely witty. Pay close attention and you will catch pop culture nods to "The Twilight Zone" and "West Side Story" and historical references to Marie Antoinette among other over-the-heads-of-kids jokes. The slapstick stuff aimed at the little ones is pretty funny too. I especially liked the recurrence of the little old lady who clocked Alex with her purse in the original. She's now on a wilderness trip in Africa, where she encounters all kinds of dangerous animals. Granny proves to be surprisingly tough - a Terminator with a handbag. All of the actors bring something special to their voicework, perhaps none more so than the great Sacha Baron Cohen, whose vocal performance as King Julien is even more unhinged than before.

Finally, it's worth noting that the animation is gorgeous, creating a believably detailed Africa. These computer animated features just keep looking better and better, don't they? So there you have it in a nutshell: Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is better-looking, funnier, and has a better story. While still not on the same level as, say, a Wall-E or a Shrek, this is nevertheless a film that works for family members of any age.

( 1/2 out of four)

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is rated PG for mild crude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.

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