Refrences, Reflexive and otherwise, are a huge part of modern-day animated movies. So, when Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa opens with a Lion King homage, it's easily expected — and then the film quickly picks up where the other Madagascar left off. The four animals — lion Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller), zebra Marty (Chris Rock), giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) and hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) — who were raised in captivity and pampered in a New York zoo all their lives, are still stranded in the wild and want to go home. With the help of cross-dressing, egomaniacal King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen in full off-the-hook mode), a pair of uppity monkeys and some straight-talking penguins, the stars board a broken-down plane destined for New York City, a trip doomed from the start: One of the plane's engines is on fire and the crew is made up entirely of penguins. You can guess how things turn out.
They crash-land in Africa and quickly adapt to their new surroundings: lush green fields filled with other lions, zebras, giraffes and hippos. For the first time, the formerly caged critters experience freedom and the joys of frolicking with their own kind — as long as they stay on the reserve. Years ago, we learn in the movie's prologue, Alex was lured away from his dad — the king of the animals, natch — and off the reserve by hunters. By chance, he ended up in New York.
Reunited with his family, Alex is named heir to the throne — if he can prove himself in a rite of passage that involves fighting another lion; the theatrical Alex mistakenly assumes it's a dance contest and busts a West Side Story move on his confused opponent. Meanwhile, hypochondriac Melman becomes the village doctor, Gloria falls for a vain hippo, and Marty, in one of the movie's cleverest gags, finds himself lost in a herd of similar-looking zebras, which all happen to sound like Chris Rock.
The most boring thing about the first Madagascar was the four stars, and the same goes for Escape 2 Africa, which is essentially Alex's coming-of-age story. Its only real laughs come when the penguins — who ambush unsuspecting tourists — and King Julien are onscreen. The movie dispenses with Julien's "I like to move it, move it" signature showstopper early, leaving him plenty of time to dress in drag, plot his takeover of New York, and arrange an impromptu volcano sacrifice. Escape 2 Africa pops in these scenes, but otherwise it merely diverts the kids with the usual throwaway jokes about boogers and big butts, while their moms and dads smirk knowingly at the Planet of the Apes and Twilight Zone references.
Michael Gallucci writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.