Slapstick shtick

New DreamWorks offering is simple, screwball fun

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One great pop culture travesty of our time is the state of Saturday morning television, having been inundated with "reality" and morality lessons. Fortunately, Madagascar, the latest animated feature from DreamWorks (the folks who brought you Shrek and the dreadful Shark Tale), is a welcome throwback to the spastic, goofball, gleefully non-educational entertainment that used to be the hallmark of any self-respecting Saturday morning lineup.

Madagascar sets itself apart from the flood of computer-generated animation flicks that either strive too hard to be Nemo-esque epics or overwork the Shrek-like irreverent humor. Madagascar’s shtick is simply its pure silliness. Hyperactive animals bounce around the screen with abandon, cracking wise-guy jokes and taking slapstick pratfalls.

It’s so silly that at times the jokes show signs of wear, but, for the most part, it just feels fun, as a cartoon should, pure and simple.

The story follows a group of pampered animals from the Central Park Zoo that winds up stranded on the shores of Madagascar. They’re lost or returned to the wilderness, depending on your point of view.

Then there are the requisite celebrities providing adequate but forgettable voice work. Most stars in animated films are there only to bulk up the marquee and make a quick buck, and most of Madagascar’s voices are no exception, including Ben Stiller as king of the zoo Alex the Lion, Jada Pinkett Smith as the pragmatic Gloria the Hippo, and David Schwimmer as the germ-fearing Melman the Giraffe. Just the fact that Schwimmer has found post-Friends employment (yes, you can breathe easier) is more memorable than any of his scenes.

But leave it to a slap-happy group of quasi-militaristic penguins — voiced by the animators and the directors — to upstage the celebrity mammals. The little guys are wickedly funny.

The celebs who actually stand out should be no surprise; Chris Rock does nothing small, and he brings his high-pitched, street-savvy sarcasm to Marty, the zebra who dreams of life in the wild. Marty may be the first zebra to toss out phrases like "crack-a-lackin’" and "off the chiz-ain."

Rock is funny, but even he’s no match for Sacha Baron Cohen (that’s Ali G to you), who goes wild as Julian, the dim-witted, party-happy chief of the lemurs. Cohen channels all of his Ali G wackiness, speaking with a bubbly accent best described as generic ethnic — somewhat Indian, maybe a touch of Caribbean, but totally off the wall.

Speaking of lemurs, if you’ve thought nothing good could come out of Reel 2 Real’s "I Like to Move It," you’ve never seen hundreds of animated lemurs bouncing and body-surfing to the maddening dance tune.

Everything is all in good fun, right down to the animation. Rather than shooting for jaw-dropping landscapes or trying to capture in intricate detail every hair on a giraffe’s butt, the animators create an eye-popping Candyland palette that looks and feels like what it is: a cartoon. Realism has its place, but why bother when you can have a hungry and half-crazed lion drifting into American Beauty-style dream sequences, only with floating steaks instead of rose petals?

Madagascar won’t bowl anyone over with its special effects or cleverness. However, with all the vaudevillian humor, screwball antics and a lemur rave, you’re bound to have a crack-a-lackin’ good laugh, and, unfortunately, those godforsaken "move it, move it" lyrics stuck in your head for weeks to come.

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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