Marty the Zebra is a dreamer. He lives in New York’s Central Park Zoo, where his every need is catered to, but he longs to run free in the wilds of Africa, where—well, Marty has no real idea of what living in the wild entails. It just sounds fun. His good friends Alex the Lion, Melman the Giraffe and Gloria the Hippo try to convince him how good they have it at the zoo—all the food they want, the attention of their adoring fans, nothing to do but lie around all day.
Marty remains unconvinced, so he decides to blow the joint and escape to the wide-open spaces of … Connecticut. (It’s easier to get to than Africa since there’s a direct train from Grand Central Station.) He gets some help from a passel of psychotic penguins, who are determined to return to their ancestral home in the wilds of Antarctica. When Marty’s zoo pals decide to rescue him from his folly, they all wind up on the wrong side of the animal control officer. Next thing they know, they’ve been crated up and are aboard a ship headed for a wildlife preserve in Kenya.
That’s when the penguins decide to hijack the ship. The hijacking goes awry, however, and Marty, Alex, Melman and Gloria find themselves adrift at sea. They soon fetch up in the wilds of Madagascar, where they meet a colony of critters led by a lemur king and get to learn what it really means to be a “wild” animal.
The power of friendship despite differences gets strong play in this film. All the friends go to great lengths to help each other, even to the point of endangering themselves. Marty, who would be natural prey to Alex in the wild, refuses to ditch his lion friend, even when Alex increasingly has trouble suppressing his inner predator. For his part, Alex sends himself into bleak exile rather than endanger his pal. The four zoo friends help the lemurs fend off a pack of foussa, catlike carnivores native to Madagascar.
Even though Alex is the star attraction at the zoo, he is not stuck up, and his friends are not jealous of him. Marty longs to have a better understanding of himself (“I don’t know if I’m white with black stripes or black with white stripes”), and he’s the resident optimist when trials arise.
Alex extols the benefits of zoo life, including having “Christmas, Hanukah and Kwanzaa” off as holidays. A character is told to wish upon a shooting star.
An adoring human throws a pair of boy’s underpants at a preening Alex like women throw their underwear at a Tom Jones concert. Marty ogles a shapely woman in a black-and-white striped blouse. King Julian sings a song with the line “I like the girls who move their bodies … move it nice and sweet and sassy.” Gloria wears a “bikini” made of starfish and a crab.
All the violence is cartoonish and played for laughs in a similar vein to a Chuck Jones or Tex Avery animation. Gloria smashes through a brick wall as the animals escape the zoo. Police point guns at the animals and then shoot Alex with tranquilizer darts. The penguins knock out a ship’s crewmember (the blow is struck offscreen). And they slap around the ship’s captain, tying him to a chair and duct taping his mouth.
A wooden crate falls onto Alex. A tree branch smacks him in the face. He steps on a thorn, then a tree falls on him. He nearly catches fire. An old lady whacks him with her purse and then kicks him in the crotch. In an offhand reference to the R-rated film Silence of the Lambs, the lead penguin says of the ship’s crew, “We killed them and ate their livers.” (In fact they set them adrift in a lifeboat.)
In a sequence that might be disturbing to younger viewers, a carnivorous plant devours a hummingbird, an owl snatches up a lemur and a crocodile eats a duckling—all as Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” plays in the background. Also, as Alex’s predatory instincts increasingly take over, he awakes from a daydream about steaks—his primary diet in the zoo—to find his teeth sunk into Marty’s hide.
A “HELP” sign constructed of tree trunks and branches morphs into a mild profanity when the P breaks into the shape of an L. The euphemisms “darn��� and “heck” are used several times. A woman says, “Dagnabbit.” A penguin says, “Well, this sucks.” Marty tells Alex, “Your teeth are in my butt!”
After being shot with a tranquilizing dart, Alex experiences an LSD-like hallucinogenic trip. Melman is a hypochondriac dependent on the numerous prescription drug vials next to his bed. Marty builds a tiki bar and shakes a canister as if making a martini, although nothing stronger than water is served.
Several examples of potty humor mar this film, including chimps talking about throwing poo at people, Marty making a constipation joke, Melman talking about having gas and bladder infections, and the lemurs being shocked to hear about using leaves for toilet paper. (“Who wipes?” King Julian asks.)
Melman tells Marty that the birthday gift he’s given him had been his first rectal thermometer—after Marty has stuck it in his mouth. Marty makes flatulence noises under his armpit. A chimp sniffs his own armpit and faints. After visiting a public restroom, Melman devours a urinal odor-eating cake, thinking it’s candy.
On a more somber note, the tribe of lemurs lives in the wreckage of a downed airplane, complete with the skeletons of its human passengers. King Julian uses a skeletal arm and hand as a pointer.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, in his poem “In Memoriam,” writes of “nature, red in tooth and claw” to describe the reality of a fallen world. It’s a pretty good bet he did not have a bunch of silly animated zoo animals in mind when he wrote the poem, but the sentiment is appropriate to Madagascar. This animated feature lampoons stories that sentimentalize the wild kingdom, with Exhibit A being the 1966 film Born Free, a mawkish tale that tells of game wardens trying to reintroduce Elsa the lion into the wilds of Kenya. The theme song to that film plays in the background as Marty fantasizes about such a life. Of course, as Marty and his friends quickly find out, nature is indeed “red in tooth and claw,” a place where one is “born free” to be either predator or prey.
Madagascar is chock-full of sly cultural references, from the original Planet of the Apes to Saturday Night Fever to Cast Away to American Beauty and an obscure Twilight Zone episode titled “To Serve Man.” (Because Jeffery Katzenberg, the driving force behind Disney’s The Lion King, is now a partner in DreamWorks, I kept expecting something to come up about “the circle of life,” but maybe such a jape was too obvious for this film.) Still, you leave the theater wondering what result you were supposed to root for—that the animals make it back to their safe zoo existence or learn to live “authentically” as wild animals. On this point it feels as if the screenplay was written by a committee. To their credit, though, the filmmakers did come down strongly on the side of the power of friendship and self-sacrifice to overcome our selfish primal urges.
How family friendly is Madagascar? Older kids and adults should not be tripped up by its thematic elements, but some (very) mild language, bathroom humor and sequences of nature in the raw might be too intense for younger kids.