Like any improbable sequel, "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" is a more potent creation when acting as a carefree joke blender than a believable sample of storytelling. As good-naturedly hilarious as the 2005 original film, the sequel suffers only in the freshness department, with filmmakers who really show lackluster confidence on where to take this unexpected franchise. It's a fine family diversion, but it fails to improve on its predecessor, and there's something mildly disappointing in that missed opportunity.
The time has come for Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) to leave their makeshift residence under King Julien's (Sacha Baron Cohen) enthusiastic reign and head back home to New York, flying the safety-last Penguin Express airline. When plane troubles arrive mid-flight, the aircraft crashes into the wilds of Africa, leaving the passengers overwhelmed in paradise. Reuniting with his father Zuba (Bernie Mac), Alex finds himself in the middle of a struggle for control of the land, easily tricked and humiliated by the devious Makunga (Alec Baldwin). Now faced with their dreams come true, the foursome have to deal with the unkind consequences of life lived among their own kind.
As a silly animated distraction, "Madagascar" got by on a smidgen of heart, respectable vocal performances, and fine help from those hilarious penguins. The militaristic flightless fowl four returns in "Africa," and, no shock here, the penguins steal the movie yet again with their resolute antics, exemplifying the sequel's delicious zany side with bright flashes of hilarity and absurdity. However, the penguins are not the stars of the show (they really need their own feature-length movie). We're here for Alex, and I'm still wondering if that's such a worthwhile expedition.
The production has some difficulty concocting a new adventure worth the time invested, moving the action into the wilds of Africa and challenging our heroes with their dream come true. After a group effort in the previous film, "Africa" separates the lead animals, sending them to their specialized moments of self-realization. A few of the turns nudge interest: Marty finding literally his own kind with a herd of doppelganger zebras (all voiced by Rock), and Julien's quest to rule Africa permits Cohen a few moments of riffing that bring big laughs.
The irritant is Alex, who once again takes center stage, only in "Africa" the character is trapped in a reluctant heir to a jungle kingdom subplot that doesn't jump off the screen, failing to drive the movie's thematic core as intended. It's nicely acted by Stiller, Mac, and Baldwin, but the scenes aren't pleasurably silly, they lack any emotional quality, and often slow the film to a full stop. A subplot detour with a pack of human tourists stranded in the wild, led by Alex's old foe Nana (Elisa Gabriel), is another comedic sleeping pill the film could do without.
"Africa" sails fine when the production peels off the plot and just acts crazy for a few minutes at a time. The sequel reaches a few feverish Looney Tunes-style pressure points, often unsettlingly broad with slapstick. Still, speed is a good friend to "Africa," especially when the picture lays back and enjoys the world created in the previous film.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio), the "Africa" DVD maintains strong image detail with this cartoon world, especially on objects the characters interact with and the picturesque backgrounds. There are some instances of EE about, but the film retains a nice, overall feel of warm African colors and atmosphere, with crisp black levels.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix on "Africa" keeps the "I like to move it, movie it!" energy alive through strong front channel action that blasts the listener with beats and cartoon antics. The surrounds are great with atmospherics and scoring selections, filling out the track agreeably. English 2.0, and French and Spanish 5.1 tracks are also available.
English, Spanish, and French subtitles are included.
A feature-length audio commentary with directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, and producers Mireille Soria and Mark Swift highlight the technical challenges the animators faced during production. While a very hushed listen, the track helps to appreciate the visual (cinematographer Guillermo Navarro was brought in help the filmmakers out with staging needs) and vocal achievements of the film, leading the viewer to scour the frame in search of all the superb details. And if you're any fan of the penguins, it's strange to hear McGrath slip into his Skipper voice now and again.
"It's a Family Affair: The Cast of 'Escape 2 Africa'" (9:10) is a one-dimensional promotional piece crammed with showbiz platitudes, however it's also a chance to spy most of the cast at work behind the microphone.
"The Making of 'Escape 2 Africa'" (11:02) furthers the fluff, only now the entire production is covered. Discussing the sequel with cast and crew, unrehearsed sentiment isn't available, but a nice overview of the technical trials is quite interesting.
"Crash Landing" (3:37) takes an action centerpiece from storyboards to final animation, interacting with animator tomfoolery unearthed during the creative process.
"African Adventure" (7:16) discusses the authenticity of the film, encouraged by a African scouting trip mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg insisted the filmmakers take to assist the storytelling potential.
"Jambo Jambo: Swahili Speak" (1:42) is a short overview of basic Swahili words and phrases. Karibu!
"'Test Flight of Air Penguin' Game" puts the viewer into the cockpit with the penguins as they try to stay in the air using makeshift flying devices. A cute idea, but it takes forever to play.
"Mad Music" is a mix of short music videos and karaoke challenges promoting the film's soundtrack.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
Included with select copies of the "Escape 2 Africa" DVD is a bonus disc containing two adventures ("Popcorn Panic" and "Gone in a Flash") from the upcoming Nickelodeon series, "The Penguins of Madagascar." The brief animated segments (about 12 minutes an episode) aren't terribly funny, and most of the voice cast is made up of disappointing soundalikes, detracting from the original "Madagascar" comedic experience. A passable distraction? Perhaps. Just don't get your hopes up, especially when the titular birds are barely in the show. As the kids say today: WTF?
"The Heart of a Lion" (11:56) is a featurette on actual lions, breezing through their behavioral patterns and daily business. No comedy here, just straight-up nature.
"The Bronx Zoo: Madagascar" (8:14) meets up with director Jim Breheny, who takes the viewer through the new Madagascar exhibit at his zoo. A discussion of animal behavior and defense mechanisms ensues.
"Mad Activities" is a series of PC-based distractions (coloring, video game demos) for younger viewers.
"Alex's Dance Off" (3:17) runs through the character's zany and plentiful dance moves, isolating a few for the viewer at home to try on for size.
If you found any merit in "Madagascar," "Africa" will fill the same requirements for animated entertainment. It's a bumpy journey, but there are still enough giggles available to warmly embrace this second round with some seriously quirky animal pals.