You can take the lion out of the wild but you can't completely take the wild out of the lion, especially if you deprive him of his steak. This is the moral of Madagascar, an uproarious new CGI-animated comedy from those wacky guys who brought you Shrek.
New York's Central Park Zoo's main attraction--Alex the Lion (voiced by Ben Stiller) and his best friends Marty the curious zebra (voiced by Chris Rock), Melman the hypochondriac giraffe (voiced by David Schwimmer) and Gloria the motherly hippo (voiced by Jada Pinkett Smith)--are pampered beyond belief. They enjoy lavish meals and have their own park views. In other words, they live in blissful captivity. But Marty isn't as content as his friends. He yearns to live in the wild, and when he makes an attempt to see this wilderness firsthand, he inadvertently drags his friends into his wild scheme. Soon the animals are darted, captured, crated and put on a ship to Africa to go live in their natural habitats. Add a quartet of renegade penguins looking for their own wild time and you've got yourself an Animal Planet special. But when the penguins stage a mutiny, the four crated pals get accidentally knocked off the boat. They suddenly find themselves washed ashore on the exotic island of Madagascar, with the jungle all around them. No daily shows. No adoring fans. And, especially, no steak served on a silver platter. There is a gaggle of dancing lemurs, but that's about it. What's a lion to do? Why, eat his best friend, of course!
The fun part of listening to celebrity voices is trying to imagine the actors as their CGI-created characters. Stiller finds his inner-lion, strutting around as the conceited, neurotic but lovable Alex. Rock easily slips into his striped alter ego Marty, the ''crack-a-lackin''' zebra with the free spirit and the zippy one-liners. And Schwimmer fits Melman's germaphobe personality perfectly-he's the ultimate New Yorker who doesn't want nature all over him. Only the petite Pinkett as the zaftig Gloria is a little hard to picture, but Pinkett's sassy attitude comes shining through. The ones who steal the show, however, are the four plotting penguins, lead by no-nonsense leader Skipper (voiced by co-director Tom McGrath). Part Charlton Heston, part Robert Stack, Skipper has never believed he was a real penguin. But he is determined to get his crew to the ''wide open spaces of Antarctica.'' ''Just smile and wave, boys, smile and wave,'' is his double-talk for, ''Let's dig a hole into the sewer and blow this Popsicle stand.'' Maybe we shouldn't tell them Antarctica really isn't all that great of a place to live.
The folks at DreamWorks still haven't quite been able to top their best, Shrek, as opposed to their rivals at major competitor Pixar, who just seems to be getting better and better. Sure, Shrek 2 made a lot more money, but it ended up just being more of the same and not quite as funny. Shark Tale was just a frenetic underwater mess. Madagascar, with its crazy animal antics, comes the closest to matching Shrek's wit and originality, especially during the first hour. Directors McGrath and Eric Darnell paint a pretty picture of zoo life, if a tad unrealistic. Please, has anyone been to a zoo lately? Blissful is hardly the word I would use to describe how animals live. But for the movie's sakes, we'll go with it. Yet, when the gang hits the shores of Madagascar, the pace unfortunately slows down. The fish-out-of-water scenario, as the four try to adjust to the wild, is hilarious, especially tangling with the lemurs. But then it switches gears as Alex's wrestles with his own beastly nature while trying not to bite Marty's butt. It feels tacked on and contrived and doesn't fit in with the rest of the raucousness.
Madagascar delivers the goods. Forget Jeff Corwin. Forget the Crocodile Hunter. Animal Planet needs to develop a show for Alex, the lion, and his four-legged monochromatic friends.