A giraffe can't change its spots and Madagascar suggests DreamWorks can't either. While Pixar concentrates on story and character, its chief rival in the CG 'toon stakes continues to focus on big stars, in-jokes and pop-culture references. When it works, as in the Shrek movies, it works exceptionally well. But when it doesn't - as in Shark Tale - - all the hoopla in the world can't mask the stink.
Relax: Madagascar is better than that watery disappointment; just not leagues better. The cast is stellar, largely charming and adept - it's just that they're not given much that's particularly interesting to say. And although the film has an appealing hook - - how will big-city critters manage in their natural habitat? - - the writers seem to run out of ideas just when their narrative should be at its most engaging. This is all the more frustrating given the élan of the opening scenes, notably a brilliantly sustained sequence that sees zebra Marty (Chris Rock) pursued across Manhattan by his hairy chums. Packed with one-liners, slapstick and hilarious detail, it's a masterclass in animated lunacy that recalls Tex Avery in his heyday. And it's rounded off with a fabulous, Dumbo-style gag involving a tranquilised lion's freaky hallucinations.
It's when our heroes are shipwrecked that the movie loses it way - the characters have little to do but moan and wait to be rescued. Instead of plot, we get endless homages: Cast Away, The Mission, Planet Of The Apes... And instead of witty dialogue, we get rambling riffs - mostly supplied by Sacha Baron Cohen as an aggravating, ragga-singing lemur.
No amount of Chris Rock's schtick (""This place is crack-a-lacking!"") or Ben Stiller kvetching can hide the slightness of the story. Although that's not to say there aren't compensatory factors. The jailbird penguins are consistently hilarious and a particularly well-spoken ape will please the ankle-biters (""If you have any poo, fling it now!""). But whilst Madagascar is funny and enjoyable it's no big, green, monster hit.
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Stiller, Rock and, er, Ali G can't quite prevent DreamWorks' shipwreck tale running aground. But the hip humour and star wattage make for a fun ride.