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I'm a big kid at heart, so I've enjoyed most of the films that have been marketed to our children in recent years - Happy Feet, Ice Age, How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda, and even Madagascar. That being said, Happy Feet Two was single handedly responsible for raising my skepticism to an all time high. Why? Because it was made for one reason and one reason only - To rake in a whole lot of dough. Needless to say, the end result was abysmal. Granted, that film wasn't a product of Dreamworks Animation, but they've gone down a similar road themselves by granting Puss in Boots his own spin-off. So, when I heard the studio was planning on releasing sequels to, well, all of their current franchises, I couldn't help but wonder how they would fare. Out of them all, Madagascar 3 was definitely the film I had the most concern for, and since I didn't catch it during its theatrical run, I couldn't help but take notice of the negative reviews that were pouring in. Still, I enjoyed the first two films enough that I figured it was probably best to see Madagascar 3 - Europe's Most Wanted for myself and come to my own conclusion.
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Although Alex (the lion - Ben Stiller) was content living in Africa when last we saw him, a severe case of homesickness has set in. In an attempt to cheer him up, Gloria (the hippo - Jada Pinkett Smith), Marty (the zebra - Chris Rock) and Melman (the giraffe - David Schwimmer) make a large and impressively detailed mud model of New York City. It doesn't exactly cheer him up, but this symbol of home grants Alex the motivation he needs to do whatever it takes to get back to the Central Park Zoo. However, the only means of transportation they had - an airplane/helicopter hybrid built from stolen jeep parts - is in Monte Carlo with the monkeys and penguins who engineered it. Of course, the wild animals are too clumsy to maintain a low profile and attract some heat from an intimidating fiend - Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand), a famed Animal Control officer that's looking to mount a lion's head in her den. To escape her clutches, the gang boards a train of circus animals. Coincidentally, the circus troupe is hoping their performance will entice an American promoter to bring their act to New York. Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems, so Alex and his friends struggle night and day to improve the presentation of the circus without signaling their whereabouts to the huntress.
Much like the films before it, the plot is simplistic and cliché, but let's be honest - This flick was never intended to be The Da Vinci Code, and people certainly don't head into these films with such absurd expectations. Still, there needs to be a story worth telling and in the first few minutes of Europe's Most Wanted, I was pretty sure this was going to be an exercise in needless excess. In the previous entry, Alex was thrilled to find a place where he truly belonged, yet now we're expected to swallow the fact that he - a lion - would trade the vast landscapes of Africa for the confines of a zoo. The grass is always greener on the other side, I guess? Anyway, you can imagine my surprise when after all was said and done, I realized my initial assessment was made in haste.
After a hectic, yet highly entertaining first act, it isn't long before the film reveals that it's actually revolving around a worthwhile central theme. Yes, there's the typical lessons of morality in tow - never tell a lie, friends should stick together, stay true to yourself, if at first you don't succeed, yadda yadda yadda - but they're all necessary staples for the kiddies. Although I didn't have a problem with the main theme driving Escape 2 Africa, it didn't differentiate itself enough away from those common staples, but this time around the sticking plot point is far more enticing. If breaking a kid's film down philosophically isn't your thing, then the message you're likely to take away is that 'home is where the heart is'. It may not sound like much on paper, but I found it to be quite appreciable. As adults, sometimes we look back on our lives and miss where we came from, but if we stop looking in the past long enough to see the opportunities ahead of us, we reward ourselves with the chance to achieve true happiness. At least, that's what I took away from the film, and I think it's a great lesson for children. I mean, life is practically nothing but a series of risky opportunities, and we shouldn't be afraid to occasionally follow through and see what's what. I'm not saying we should be teaching our kids to say 'yes' to everything with no rhyme or reason, just to at least take calculated risks into consideration. All of the characters in this film, old and new alike, find themselves at a crossroad that will make or break their dreams, so they show the kids in the audience that hard work and persistence can pay off. In today's society, that message is more important than ever.
As I mentioned earlier, I've seen a lot of scathing comments about Europe's Most Wanted, and I just can't see where those people are coming from. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the complaints stem from people who don't generally care for the franchise to begin with... in which case I would have to ask why they're watching the third installment of Madagascar to begin with. In this respect, I guess I'll put it this way - If you didn't care for the first two films, this one probably isn't going to change your mind. As for me, I found Madagascar 3 to be the best entry in the series yet. For one, it cranks the action, laughs and absurdity up to 11 (in a good way), which allows the franchise to finally wow us with stunts and sight gags that probably haven't been this appreciated since Bugs Bunny was regularly starring in short films. Honestly, I haven't had this much flat out fun while watching a movie in quite some time, and there were a couple of moments where I caught my mouth open in delight. What's most impressive of all however, is that this explosively entertaining package also contains a story that says it's OK to step out of your comfort zone, and the glue that holds that lesson together is a lot of love, inspiration and heart. Yes, heart. Although there were traces of that in the previous entry, it actually feels genuine and uplifting this time around. It's rare to see a franchise actually grow with each successive film, yet that's exactly what Madagascar has done. What else is there for me to say outside of, "Come on, Madagascar 4!"
This shouldn't come as any surprise, but Madagascar 3 - Europe's Most Wanted is an assault of eye candy from beginning to end, and this 1080p, AVC encoded transfer (1.78:1) replicates that jaw-dropping presentation flawlessly. In a word... wow. This is the most colorful film I've seen since Toy Story 3, and that's a major compliment to be paid when being compared to the likes of Disney/Pixar. From the moment the Madagascar gang leaves the plains of Africa (which is only a matter of minutes), nearly every shot in the film has some sort of 'wow' factor. Monkeys double chain-gunning bananas from the 'primitive' aircraft, Chantel DuBois gliding on her feet at high speeds through a makeshift oil slick, beautiful country landscapes, and that's only the tip of the lion's tail. As amazing as these scenes are in their own right, they pale in comparison to the two Cirque Du Soleil inspired sequences, which are basically the equivalent of Madagascar on crack (again, in a good way). The sharpness and detail of the characters and location often leap off the screen, figuratively and almost literally, but it's the colors that's likely to grab your attention the most; they'll slap your eyeballs around until you're dragging your jaw on the floor of your home theater. If you couldn't care less about the story driving the film and are watching merely for an engaging experience with CGI, then look no further. This is the prettiest looking film you're likely to see until the next outing with Alex and Co., and although I've downplayed the sharpness and detail when compared to the color, they're at the top of their game as well. The clarity stuns. Black levels are deep and inky. Contrast is superb. The compression reveals almost no signs of compression, be it jaggies, artifacts or otherwise. There's some extremely minor banding that I noticed in a shot or two, but I've seen this sort of thing in theaters before, so I wouldn't be surprised if this was also representative of the source. This is a gorgeous transfer for a gorgeous looking film, and even if you don't agree with my assessment of the film, there's no denying that it has the capability to make your eyes melt upon your initial viewing.
The lossless 7.1 Dolby TrueHD track is also worthy of celebration. The ones responsible for mixing this track deserve some praise because this film has it all - Dialogue that's always front and center with realistic clarity, sound effects that whoosh and zoom across all channels with uncontainable energy, powerful bass during musical numbers and appropriate action sequences, believable positioning and depth, and even an impressive amount of subtle environmental ambience (for an animated film). None of the dialogue gets masked behind the action, and none of the sound effects seem to get lost in the zaniest and craziest sequences in the film. Be it the sounds of an airborne circus or Katy Perry's song "Fireworks", this film is just as impressive to listen to as it is to watch. Furthermore, if my son is any indication, the high energy sound design is likely to take control of your little one with the same effect. Comparing this to the included DVD, the difference is remarkable. You still may prefer some action films to show off your home theater, but this flawless audio presentation rounds out a stellar A/V experience that won't disappoint, regardless if you end up loving or hating the film.
To start things off, this release comes with one of the oddest collectibles I've ever seen - A replica of Marty's Rainbow Wig. At first I scoffed, wondering, who in the world would get any use out of this thing? After I showed it to my son, the answer was clear - He's worn it while wearing his Elmo slippers, running around the house, dancing to the music in the film and posing for pictures that will be remembered (and used as blackmail) for years to come... let the blackmail begin!
Blu-ray Exclusives Menu
-Get Them to the Train - A cute little game that my two year old had a blast playing (I helped, of course). The objective is simple - Shoot the characters from a cannon to the corresponding train car.
-The Animation Corner - This is a great picture-in-picture supplement that details all the stages of animation, from storyboards to completion. There's also some stuff showing off the voice work and whatever else comes into play, but it's the craft of actually animating the characters that acts as the primary focus. This piece is highly informative and not too technical, so it's suitable for audiences of all ages to dig in to.
Special Features Menu
-Big Top Cast - This supplement (about 13 and a half minutes in length) focuses on the stars behind the characters, and breaks down how they were able to bring the Madagascar animals to life. This includes praise from the filmmakers and brief interview bits from the cast.
-Deleted Scenes - These three scenes are all test sequences so they're not 'completed', which should come as no surprise to anyone, because why would they waste money on animating something that won't appear in the film? The scenes are basically throw-away, but introductions by Directors Conrad Vernon, Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath at least tell us some useful, relevant information about them.
-Mad Music Mash-Up - I personally consider this a useless supplement. It's only a minute long, and is essentially a funky musical montage of the 'Afro-Circus-Polka-Dot' routine. Even for the kids it's sort of a waste, because it's far more beneficial to actually wade through the scene selection menu and watch the real sequence(s) whenever you want.
-Ringmasters - At nearly 15 and a half minutes, this supplement details an entire day in the production of Madagascar 3. This is probably my second favorite supplement overall (outside of the Filmmakers' Commentary, listed below). We see a lot of behind-the-scenes featurettes for live action films, so that stuff is mostly old hat, but seeing an actual day of production for an animated film brings to light an entirely different process than we're used to seeing. Highly recommended.
-Madagascar 3 Roundtable - I sort of thought this was going to be a table reading, but it's really just a short (less than 4 minutes) discussing with the main cast. It does give a little insight into how long it took the Madagascar franchise to get off the ground, but outside of that it's really more of a promotional piece than anything worthwhile.
-Filmmakers' Commentary - This is a fantastic picture-in-picture commentary, and I wish more films utilized this method instead of merely drilling us with bland audio. The directors are passionate and proud about their work on this film, and they gel together well enough to provide a wealth of entertainment. More importantly, there's a lot of great information that's shared through their musings, so this should appeal to everyone. Highly recommended, and stands as my favorite supplement on this disc overall.
-Sneak Peek - Wow, horrible timing. As of this writing, Madagascar 3 comes out today, and this in-depth look at the live action How to Train Your Dragon tour is already worthless, at least for me. This live show looks absolutely amazing, something that nobody should miss... and you know what? The show already rolled around here a week or two ago. Thanks for nothing, I guess, unless I should be thankful for knowing what I missed out on. Hopefully this show makes another go-round and I can catch it next year. For those of you who have shows coming up in your area, buy your tickets... now. Because this looks like an AMAZING experience the whole family can enjoy.
Also included are DVD and UltraViolet copies of the film.
I was highly skeptical that Madagascar 3 - Europe's Most Wanted would be able to improve upon the films before it, or even have a worthwhile story to tell. I'm glad I pushed those concerns aside and gave the film a fair shot, because it's the best installment in the franchise yet. Not only is it sillier, funnier and just flat out more fun, but it marks the first time an adventure with Alex and his friends emanated some genuine heart. Yes, the antics have been cranked up to a ridiculous degree, but this makes the film feel more free than confined, and it's all balanced out by a story that progressively transforms into a feel-good experience that the entire family can enjoy. Although it makes me anxious to see Madagascar 4 (because you know there's going to be one), I also think this film would serve as the ultimate swan song for the series and the studio should leave well enough alone. That being said, they surprised me with this installment and I'm curious to see if they can top themselves yet again. As far as the Blu-ray disc itself is concerned, the A/V presentation is top-notch and flawlessly replicates what's probably the most beautifully animated film in recent memory, and the supplements are mostly worthwhile as well. The inclusion of Marty's Rainbow Wig may seem rather silly to some, but trust me - If you have kids at home, they're going to get a big kick out of wearing it, and you're bound to have a great time seeing where their imaginations take them. Highly Recommended.