The inevitable third in a blockbuster franchise that will yield an inevitable fourth, maybe even a fifth, and so on, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted is low on character development, relying on flimsy, time-honored narrative arcs that audiences barely even notice anymore. Its cast of anthropomorphic characters are sharply drawn and rendered with complicated computer algorithms that were probably unthinkable at the dawn of the computer-animation age, if not a few years ago, but the characters themselves suffer a curious lack of personality (for starters, they all seem to have the same bulging, eager-to-make-you-laugh eyes), even when voiced by a star-studded cast of voice actors. We are, once again, in the land of DreamWorks Animation, which spares no expense for production, but doesn’t care a fig about story, not even when it goes completely off the rails and into a ravine.
And yet, not surprisingly for a franchise that has always tried to make time for surreal digressions without alienating its demographic (which is a little like trying to fly to the moon without going west of the Hudson River), it soon becomes clear that Madagascar 3 is gunning for the first-place spot as the most flamboyant family film ever made, a cinematic LGBT pride parade for children of all ages. This should be cause for celebration. Sure, it’s never explicitly stated in the dialogue, nor explicitly represented in terms of gender and sexuality (at least not in ways the kids will catch), but it’s nevertheless flamingly obvious, an explosion of fruity colors and pastel fireworks, pitched to a degree of psychedelic phosphorescence that even Kenneth Anger would think was a bit too much, that Florenz Ziegfeld would declare was too elaborate. Welcome to family-friendly cinema in the age of Glee.
Picking up directly where the 2008 sequel left off, Madagascar 3 finds our band of protagonists—numbering almost a dozen at this point, but headlined by the New York quartet (Ben Stiller’s Alex the lion, Chris Rock’s Marty the zebra, David Schwimmer’s Melman the giraffe, and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Gloria the hippopotamus)—stricken with Big Apple homesickness, and frightened of the prospect of spending the rest of their lives in the godforsaken African wilderness. Through typically impossible means and circumstances, they find themselves ricocheting through the casinos of Monte Carlo, the rooftops of Paris, and the streets of Rome, with dedicated animal-control cop Chantel DuBois (voiced by Frances McDormand) hot on their trail.
Along the way, they hitch a ride with an all-animal circus, which has been floundering since its main attraction, a tiger who can leap through very small brass rings after lubing up with olive oil (think about that), has suffered a loss of nerve. The ensuing plot developments give directors Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, and Conrad Vernon carte blanche to whip up some of the most spectacularly zany visual fields in a Hollywood movie since Speed Racer. Powered by the impossible, high-flying stunts of its animal and human characters, Madagascar 3 spirals, sashays, pirouettes across the European continent. Euro stereotypes are exhumed from some dusty political cartoon handbook from the 1920s, Marty starts a rainbow-wig-and-polka-dots wardrobe revolution in the circus troupe, and the lemur King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) falls hard for a massive, bicycle-riding bear.
In spite of its lazy, cookie-cutter screenplay (some viewers may be wagering on what percentage of bits can be attributed to the surprising co-writer credit for Greenberg auteur Noah Baumbach—likely the one where Stefano the seal’s face twitches in time with Stiller’s violent hemming and hawing), simple narrative mechanics are only dutifully observed to the extent that they step aside to make way for numerous flights of madness. When DuBois needs to inspire her injured troops (one of whom looks a lot like Eric Wareheim), nothing short of a full-on production number for “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” will suffice, and when the circus inevitably pulls itself together for the big finish, there’s no question but that it should literally be a flying circus, a cross between a peacock, a mountain, and a party bus.