Obviously pluralism is a high priority for “Madagascar 3.” Featuring the voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter, Bryan Cranston, Jessica Chastain, and Martin Short, this is the one about the lion, the zebra, the hippo, and the giraffe, along with three lemurs, a few penguins, and several chimps, who join up with a Siberian tiger, a cheetah, and a sea lion, among several other creatures great and small, in order to make their way through Europe and home to New York.
And even at the level of conception, this latest overcrowded ark to roll off the DreamWorks Animation assembly-line is highly pluralistic; it was directed by three people and written by two. Perhaps as a concession to efficiency, one of the two writers is also one of the three directors, Eric Darnell, who’s been with the “Madagascar” movies since they began, in 2005, and now seems quite at ease, at least inasmuch as his individual contribution even can be determined. The other writer, whose individual contribution seems at least theoretically more conspicuous, is Noah Baumbach, the occasional Wes Anderson collaborator, adapter of a Jonathan Franzen novel for TV, and purveyor of highbrow independent comedy films full of family-unfriendly jokes.
Possibly it was Baumbach who came up with the villain of the piece, a nominally human animal-control gendarme (with the voice of Frances McDormand) whose first meeting with our heroes in Monte Carlo prompts an almost rabidly obsessive rampage to hunt them down. Leaping between Riviera rooftops and running through hotel walls, waving around a hand saw with which she hopes to ready the lion’s head for her trophy wall, she pauses only to rouse her understandably hospitalized subordinates with a mascara-running rendition of “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.”
The whole movie is kind of like that: noisy, colorful, sometimes spectacularly remorseless, and not at all interested in slowing down. I caught it in a matinee, with some kids in attendance. Their responses seemed illuminating. One kid would laugh because he could sense the rhythm, if not the meaning, of a joke. Then another would laugh because he heard the first kid’s laughter. Then others, similarly mindful not to miss their cue. Each wave of laughter seemed more mirthless than the last; nobody seemed to actually be finding anything funny.
Undeterred, the movie galloped on. It has the sort of manic madcap pace — full of dovetailed gags — that feigns respect for your alert intelligence but really is an awkward panic about its lack of inspiration, or at least a bid to make you think you’ll also be needing the DVD. But it also has some nice touches, like the ring of fire burning in the tiger’s eyes — first with fury at a painful memory, then with determination to conquer it — or the deliriously one-sided affair between the lemur voiced by Baron Cohen and a dumb drooling bear in a tutu, whose tiny bicycle he eventually replaces with a Ducati.
Anyway, the gang evades its insane pursuer by hiding out with a proudly traditional (read: relevance-challenged) trans-European circus, paying its way in the currency of American style: borderline-disingenuous zeal, pseudo-novelty, bright vulgarity. See? Something for everybody!