23 JULY 2005, Page 37

Tame at heart

Mark Steyn


U, selected cinemas

In my neck of the woods, Madagascar was the first drive-in movie of the summer. Me’n’the kids clambered on to the hood of the truck at sundown and settled in with our hot dogs and shakes. And we had a goodish time. We especially appreciated the dance number whose entire lyric is:

I like to move it move it I like to move it move it I like to I like to I like to [pause] move it.

It’s sung by a lemur voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen (i.e., Ali G) and he’s so insinuating we bellowed it all the way home.

But the rest of the movie pretty much faded away to nothing as we pulled out of the drive-in. Whereas Hollywood in gener al is having a crummy summer (as discussed a couple of weeks back), children’s movies in particular are having a terrible one. The message of almost every kidpic boils down to: you’ve got to have a dream; if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true? In normal circumstances, this is the barely submerged subtext. Shark Boy and Lava Girl disastrously elevated it into the literal plot: small boy has dreams and must physically enter them in order to make sure they have a happy ending. It seemed unlikely anyone could ever make a film on this theme again. So kidpic-wise that left the one about a disparate band of creatures who come to learn they’re all one big happy multicultural if unconventional family. Who cares that in the animal kingdom they all hunt, kill and eat each other? Enter Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) in an animated feature from Dreamworks that has had everything thrown at it in the hopes that something might stick.

This quartet are the stars of the Central Park zoo. Alex is the king of the jungle, which means he gets to sing ‘New York, New York’ for the amusement of the clientele. Trouble arises when, for various convoluted if not entirely convincing reasons, they get shipped out in a freighter and wash up in ‘the wild’. The joke then is the old one about sophisticated urbanites ill at ease in the boondocks — see the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy, the Wodehouse story where Bertie Wooster goes out to Long Island, a famous I Love Lucy episode, various Woody Allens, etc. No reason why it shouldn’t work one more time, and, indeed, the moment when Alex and co. survey the tropical landscape and think they’ve merely traded up to a more environmentally lush pad like the San Diego zoo is not unamusing. Nonetheless, they quickly realise that their creature comforts are gone for good and unless they figure out what to do they face spending the rest of their lives in the company of King Julien, the aforementioned Ali G lemur who prances around the jungle with an accent that sounds like a creepy Latin gigolo.

Madagascar’s premise isn’t exactly inspired but it’s perfectly viable — and, in its implication that the ultra-anthropomorphised city dwellers have become disconnected from their animal nature, one could read it as a sly send-up of the genre itself. But it quickly dwindles down into a lot of creaky exchanges between the effete urbanites and the wild crowd — ‘You mean you use grass to wipe?’ ‘Who wipes?’ Ha-ha. Films like Shrek have become very adept in recent years at operating on both a child’s-eye and grown-up level, but Madagascar struggles to serve either, and its pile-up of pop-culture references make the film seem rather parochial. In basic plot terms, we take too long to get to Madagascar and don’t do enough when we’re there. If the story’s about slickers in hicksville, you need at some point to see them using their smarts to outwink the natives. You never do, and after the requisite we-are-family stuff the film winds down to a fairly arbitrary close. It feels drawn out and padded at 80 minutes, because at least three quarters of the quartet are no more than comic traits on four legs parcelled out to bored Hollywood talent.

It’s not the film so much as the formula — big names, old pop songs, in-jokes that seems stale. The animation is handsome and has a retro cool but, unless they figure out some way to get a story in there, this genre is showing signs of going the way of the musical.