Way before he had a presidential seal to lend him the veneer of diplomacy, Ronald Reagan called for America's blacks to quit their pissing and moaning and realize how good they have it here in the U.S. of A.
"In their own country," the Great Communicator said, "they're eating each other for lunch."
Substitute animals for people of color a transposition that would have suited Reagan just fine and you'll have the odd worldview behind Madagascar, the new animated feature from DreamWorks SKG. The movie is fresh proof that Jeffrey Katzenberg did not bring the entirety of the Disney magic with him when he jumped ship, but it also shows that the "little midget" may not have fully understood that whole Circle of Life business that was whipped up under his watch. If he did, he sure has a funny way of reinterpreting it.
Yet another high-tech, low-laughs computer enterprise, the film introduces us to a cadre of critters leading lives of luxury at New York's Central Park Zoo. Chief among them are Alex the egocentric lion (Ben Stiller); Marty the ennui-ridden zebra (the needlessly ubiquitous Chris Rock); Melman the hypochondriac giraffe (David Schwimmer); and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), whose main attribute is a mild verbal sass we're meant to construe as ghetto. Though they and their fellow critters are pampered, well-fed and receive daily shows of mass appreciation, Marty for one is beginning to wonder if there's more to life somewhere else. Attempting an absurd escape, he gets the whole crew branded as untamable and shipped off to Kenya. One seagoing mishap later and they're washed ashore on the island of Madagascar, where they become embroiled in a battle between a community of frisky lemurs and some feared predators.
It takes an entire 45 minutes to set up this lion-out-of-water scenario; the movie's four writers fill the gaps with garden-variety Noo Yawk send-ups and a volley of sub-Simpsons pop-culture references. (One such gag that does work involving Tom Wolfe and a pair of poo-flinging monkeys will doubtless stymie family audiences more familiar with the latter than the former.) There's also ample time to dwell on the folly of "name" voice casting; for every coup of character realization that's out there like Ellen DeGeneres' Dory, there are a half-dozen analogues to Schwimmer's Melman, who manages to be both woefully anonymous and mentally inseparable from his human inspiration. (Wait maybe those aren't contradictory concepts.)
When the location shifts to Madagascar, the movie livens up a tad, but it also gets weird to the point of being downright evil. Denied his daily rations of juicy steak, Alex starts to go feral, imagining his buddies as walking slabs of meat and biting on their butts in frenzied hallucination. There's a strange moral at play here: Leave animals in cages and zoos where they can be cared for by us wise humans; let them run free, and they're going to start bloodying each other's asses. And that's a helluva way to ruin a perfectly good friendship. Is this a message we really want our nation's kids to be swallowing? What would Reagan do? Look for the answers in the sequel, Lunchtime for Bonzo, coming soon to a PETA rally near you.