MADAGASCAR: ESCAPE 2 AFRICA
screenplay by Etan Cohen and Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath
directed by Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath
starring Seann William Scott, Paul Rudd, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Elizabeth Banks
screenplay by Paul Rudd & David Wain & Ken Marino
directed by David Wain
by Walter Chaw Rote and routine, Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath's follow-up to their popular Madagascar takes the usual sequel route towards magnification with the obnoxious Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (henceforth Madagascar 2). At the heart of it is a weird, feral mix of Lord of the Flies and Swiss Family Robinson as a group of New Yorkers gets lost on safari--commentary, if you want to formulate one, on the incursion of Americans into the rest of the world. It's not a bad thing to try to impose on this film in this historic election year, particularly since you're not likely to be distracted by very much else in the picture. It's even interesting to wonder how it is that lion Alex, voiced by Jewish Ben Stiller, could have been sired by daddy Zuba (Bernie Mac) and a nameless mom (Sherri Shepherd)--shades of Simba (Matthew Broderick) somehow springing from the loins of Mufasa (James Earl Jones). What's most potentially interesting about the piece, however, is the interspecies miscegenation (is it "bestiality" if they're both animals? Sort of like is it still necrophilia if it's Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron?) suggested between giraffe Melman and hippo Gloria (voiced by isn't-he-Jewish David Schwimmer and black Jada Pinkett Smith, respectively), eventually equated ironically with the union of a penguin and a bobble-head hula doll.
Yet for all that, Madagascar 2 is aggressively devoid of interest. The four animals enter the film like glam-rock heroes, slingshot to Africa to be reunited with their roots ("It's just like Roots!" bleats token zebra Marty (Chris Rock)) and to inaugurate an endless series of pop-cultural references that children will not catch. (Neither, it's most likely, will their parents.) The best of them is a quick nod to "The Twilight Zone"'s "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"; the worst of them is the rest, with the whole enterprise feeling exhausted from the start no matter the volume of animals thrown at the audience in an attempt, I guess, to justify its mainframe capacity. If one of each worked in the first film, why not hundreds of each in the second? And why not get Alec Baldwin to do Elvis-haired bad-lion Kakunga while Alex and his long-lost dad work out their queer-panic issues through West Side Story choreography? Without new ideas (it cribs in fact a volcano-sacrifice sequence from the Ice Age sequel that speaks volumes about the ways kid's entertainments implant racist ooga-booga messages in children (for fun!)), Madagascar 2 is just another completely disposable film with a questionable audience, boring for extended stretches, painful in others. The basic strictures of redemption and reunion are milked for all they're worth and, frankly baby, they're not worth a whole hell of a lot. Not funny, not exciting, animated only as well as every other well-animated film is animated--there's not much to recommend Madagascar 2, though there aren't very many alternatives right at this moment, so expect it to make money out of proportion with its quality. Which is why, unless it's made by Pixar, this genre never seems to improve.
Enter David Wain's often-uproarious, always-blue Role Models, which takes the taboo of kids saying unspeakable things to exciting new lows. Smart, sullen Danny (Paul Rudd, who also receives a co-writing credit) and stupid, horny Stifler-clone Wheeler (Stifler himself, Seann William Scott) are given community-service assignments as Big Brothers to gaming dork Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and sewer-mouthed Ronnie (Bobb'e J. Thompson). Of course they all learn from each other, as is the custom of these things in the Judd Apatow age of ultra-conservative tit-and-cock flicks, but there's a dedication to the unwholesomeness of the characters and the gleeful racism and homophobia contained in the constant stream of deadpan obscenity that recalls the occasional brilliance of "Strangers with Candy". See in that comparison, especially, dispatcher Gayle Sweeny (Jane Lynch) and her dead-on skewering of the peculiar target of people who went off the path, doing their damnedest to get back on that road to righteousness.
Role Models does the post-modern snark that Madagascar 2 soft-shoes by offering some insight into its racial/class politics beyond merely the literal, Shrek-ian regurgitation of familiar scenes and recitation of tired references. There's real barb beneath the suggestion that black kid Ronnie's armour is Def Comedy Jam racism while Augie's is to retreat into a live-action role-playing fandango, and the picture is sympathetic to the social tripwires that lead to dysfunction. (Danny is ultimately no paragon of normalcy, ditto in a less dour way the empty-headed Wheeler.) For all the things that are over-familiar about Role Models, what works isn't its jubilant celebration of misanthropy and stupidity, but its canny deployment of reasonable warmth and, hold on to your hats, surprising smarts. Originally published: November 7, 2008.