Madagascar, and more...

So I went to go see Madagascar at Mayfair last week, mostly because I’m a sucker for CGI. I’ll go see anything, including the super-awful Polar Express, as long as its computer animated. I’m just so interested in the process, that even if the movie is terrible, I can at least enjoy the animation. This is the same reason I love Miyazaki’s films, like Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, because they often don’t make sense, but they’re beautiful to watch.

But Madagascar is such a cookie-cutter imitation of better films that I may have to rethink my movie going habits.

It’s not that there’s anything terribly bad about the movie. Its fun enough, and it’s better than Shark Tale at least. Basically, a group of zoo animals from NYC, in attempting to help a friend, end up stranded on the island of Madagascar, off the coast of Africa. Their attempts to blend into their new “wild” surroundings create the kind of fish-out-of-water situation previously seen in, oh, I don’t know, just about every movie ever. Will they be rescued, or will they grow to love their new home?

I don’t care.

Seriously. I was never once emotionally involved in this flick, and not just because it’s a kid’s movie. Madagascar seemed like just a string of gags held together, tenuously, by an afterthought of a plot. I can see the DreamWorks production meeting going like this:

“Ok, so our focus group found out that kids like zoo animals, and dancing
lemurs. But not dancing lemurs in the zoo. So how can we get those
two together?”

“How about we send the zoo animals to the

“Brilliant! Get Ali G on the phone!”

That’s the whole meeting. Madagascar was greenlit from there. I know that the movie business exists to make money, but the downfall of quality children’s movies in the past 5 years has been dramatic. I know I am a Pixar junkie, but I have yet to see a non-Pixar CGI kid’s film that seemed interested in making the story compelling. You hear that Lasseter? Now give me a job.

More and more these movies have been about making kids want to go, and convincing the parents that they’ll enjoy it too. While I understand this, from a marketing perspective, what ever happened to making kids movies for kids? I mean, there are jokes in Madagascar that no kid would ever get, including references to American Beauty, the original Planet of the Apes, and one exceptionally obscure nod to the Twilight Zone episode, “To Serve Man.” These are thrown into the script, in what I guess is an attempt to convince the parents that they’re enjoying themselves, but I just found myself distracted and annoyed.

And yes, Pixar does this too, but they also understand the art of subtlety. Gags are thrown into Madagascar in such a slapdash, ham-fisted way that they are distracting from the story, while Finding Nemo or Monsters, Inc. reserve such jokes for the background, thus both enhancing the main story and enriching the experience for older viewers. All the Pixar movies stand up after multiple viewings, and you’ll probably catch something new each time, while these other movies seem to slap you in the face and say “HEY! THIS IS FUNNY!”

I know it’s kinda pointless to criticize a kid’s movie. Kids probably love Madagascar, just as they loved Shark Tale, Ice Age, Shrek 2, etc. The problem, though, is that eventually there will be a backlash against these manic, goofy CGI movies, and a demand will return for traditional animated features. And where will they be? Nowhere, since Disney shut down all their 2-D animation studios, except for direct-to-video sequels. So I hope Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s studio (which unfortunately has a first-look distribution deal with Disney), is able to capitalize on this, and expand from arthouse releases to huge ones.

Another thing, and then I’ll shut up. Voice casting in these animated features has become ridiculous. I read an article with brilliant voice actor Billy West, of Ren & Stimpy and Futurama fame, where he complains about big names getting all the parts in animation these days. And he’s right. The studios (again, not Pixar) are convinced that if they can put some star names on the marquee, that audiences will flock in to hear them. Madagascar boasts Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Cedric the Entertainer, none of which made much of an effort to get into character. They played themselves. Same with Will Smith, Renee Zellweger and Angelina Jolie in Shark Tale. Or Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Sinbad. Did anybody really go see that movie to hear the voice of Brad Pitt?

Occasionally the stars will deliver, such as David Schwimmer in Madagascar, Mike Myers in Shrek, or Billy Crystal/John Goodman in Monsters, Inc. But for the most part, the most successful casting in animated films, or any film for that matter, is when the best actor is cast, not the biggest name.

Look at The Incredibles, for example. The main cast is Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Jason Lee, Sarah Vowell and Samuel L. Jackson. Only Jackson would be considered a Hollywood “star”, and Frozone is a secondary character in the movie. The rest of the cast was chosen for their talent, and their suitability to the role, instead of their name power. And god knows if Pixar and Disney wanted an all-star cast, they have the money and the power to cast whomever they wanted. They could’ve had Vin Diesel as Elastigirl and gotten away with it.

I guess I’m just getting too old to enjoy these new kids movies without overanalyzing them. I can still go back and watch the movies from my childhood, like Labyrinth and Transformers: The Movie, but these newfangled flicks are just too much for a child of the 80s like me. Here’s hoping they don’t screw up the proposed He-Man and Transformers movies. You hear me, Bay? I will destroy you!!

Sorry, got off on a tangent there. Madagascar gets a C- for unoriginality.


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