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The Madagascar and Ice Age films are the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches of ongoing animated movie franchises. They’re filling enough and taste just fine, but few people outside of little kids really look forward to another one, especially after we’ve acquired grown-up tastes for fine dining, which we’ll fill with Pixar and Studio Ghibli films for the purposes of this analogy. I don’t approach either series with any serious critical intent; rather, I consider them nominally successful on their most basic merits – attractive animation and a handful of funny gags, usually slapstick-related. On the rare occasions that something truly unique or clever escapes the mix I’m sure to report on it. However, I have been forced to second-guess my assumptions concerning DreamWorks’ animated releases following a series of genuinely great films. Even Puss in Boots, a spin-off of the Shrek series (which ranks from ‘awful’ to ‘eh, not too bad’), was a worthy endeavor, at least from a purely visual standpoint. Perhaps the Madagascar series deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted
This third entry in the franchise starts directly where the last one left off with the penguins (Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, and John DiMaggio) and chimps (Conrad Vernon) leaving Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer), and Gloria the Hippopotamus (Jada Pinkett Smith) to live happily in Africa. Except, apparently, everyone has had a change of heart since the last movie and the penguins and chimps are now expected to return from Monte Carlo to pick up the lead characters and drop them back in New York City to live in cages again (even though the thematic point of the last film was that the characters had decided freedom was the better option). When it appears the penguins and chimps are not returning (perhaps because they weren’t asked to…) Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria simply swim to Monaco with the intention of scolding their friends, who have taken on the human persona of the King of Versailles in the form of an elaborate penguin/chimp costume. When their idiotic plan goes awry, Monaco Animal Control officer Captain Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand) is called to collect the escaped critters. But DuBois has other plans – she wants a lion’s head for her trophy wall and plans on brutally murdering Alex. While escaping from DuBois our heroes find their way into a traveling circus, which they proceed to buy from the human owners (yeah, they buy it), much to the delight of Stefano the Sea Lion (Martin Short) and the chagrin of Vitaly the tiger (Bryan Cranston).

It’s pretty obvious that everyone involved with Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted is spinning their wheels and making the movie for the sake of money, not the sake of telling an important story. I even recall some of the actors referring to the film as Madagascar 3: Cashing Another Paycheck, though I may have made that up (even if it went unsaid, it’s still heavily implied by the lacklustre character work). The screenwriters include only the thinnest hair of a plot as backbone (one that, as mentioned, betrays the plot of the previous film) for a loosely-connected collection of standalone gags. At first this is kind of annoying. Stuff just sort of happens without a narrative purpose and it all happens at such a breakneck pace that I felt assaulted. The characters do not advance at all from the already relatively un-advanced place they had been left in the previous film. There’s also almost zero context for anyone that hasn’t seen the other two movies, just the impression of narrative momentum created by the chase/joke/chase/joke structure. Then I started to kind of dig the film’s attitude. It’s such a content-free blitzkrieg on the senses that it starts to smell like an indictment of short attention spans. It’s not, of course, but given the chance to pause the film a few times and refocus my attention, I hesitantly respected the film’s Chuck Jones on speed and caffeine approach. There’s even an abstract, impressionistic, neon-baked tone poem set to Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ that verges on brilliant in terms of pure image.

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted
But even if we’re pretending Madagascar 3 is some kind of secret work of hyperactive art, it still runs on a weak, unbalanced, and painfully predictable screenplay that verges on insulting any audience member that really cared about these characters. I’m not a fan of the first two films in the series, but they are character-driven and the second film left the characters in a good place. This movie pushes them back to the same place they were at the beginning of the second film and then loses them among an ensemble of underdeveloped critters the audience has no reason to care about. A decade ago, this wouldn’t have really been a problem, but the folks at Pixar had to go and redefine expectations for unnecessary second sequels of animated movies with Toy Story 3. Those jerks. This lack of content extends even to the film’s usual surefire laugh machines – the penguins. The Madagascar penguins are usually the one thing that any viewer not particularly fond of the series can look forward to (similar to the Ice Age series’ ultra-simplified, purely slapstick side character named Skrat, whose only goal in life is to gather acorns). The penguins were popular enough to garner their own TV series, where their high-speed animation antics are best served in a short format storytelling style (11 minutes per episode part). That energy is now spread over the entire film, rendering the penguins mostly moot and surprisingly unfunny.

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted


It never gets easier to find something interesting to say about the quality of an animated feature on Blu-ray, but here I go again, thesaurus in hand. This transfer is meticulous, exceptional, outstanding, distinguished, and even a little superb at times. It’s also an intense experience, full of conflicting styles, aggressive movement, and constantly shifting focal points. I’m also thinking that the 3D version might melt your eyes out of your skull. Once again, the Madagascar films are cartoonier than a lot of other CG animated releases, which makes for crisper lines and flatter patterns. I’m sure there were some kind of technological advances in texture mapping since the last Madagascar movie, but I don’t really notice any differences in the quality of this transfer, which mixes the graphic characters with more realistic backgrounds. The clarity of the transfer helps keep the contrasting elements separate without the fusion ever appearing weird. The natural, photorealistic textures are the more easy to appreciate piece of the puzzle (I kind of want to pet all the animals), but the vibrant patterns of the graphic and angled backgrounds impressed me the most. There’s not really a set colour palette here – the timing and hue choices change up every few minutes. The filmmakers don’t leave a single crayon in the box and don’t miss a chance to mix up diverging colour elements. Some scenes are warm with glowing light sources, some scenes feature richer blends with more prominent black shadows, and others are dark and cool with poppy acrylic or neon embellishments. There are a few fantasy/dream sequences that are left entirely black and white aside from a single character. All of this occurs without even a hint of compression noise, blocking, edge enhancement or even banding effects (I thought I saw some on the lion’s nose, but realized it was just the fur pattern).

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted


Once again, DreamWorks Animation appears to be the one company keeping Dolby TrueHD alive as a Blu-ray format after just about every other company in the world has moved towards DTS-HD MA mixes (Anchor Bay still gives it up for Dolby on occasion). This particularly Dolby TrueHD 7.1 mix meets all the format’s expectations on my system – everything is plenty clear, aural elements are well separated, the LFE is punchy, and the centered dialogue is a little too quiet. Madagascar 3 is, as I said in the feature review, a bit of an audio/video assault, which makes for a very busy track. Walls of noise are continuously pitted with sharp directional stabs and surprisingly discernable, usually screaming dialogue. There aren’t too many chances for quieter moments, but there’s plenty of dynamic range between the sound walls. I’d recommend the mix as an ideal reference experience, if I was afraid that listening to it full volume would leave you in a straight jacket. Besides the occasionally low volume dialogue, the closest this mix comes to having a problem is the occasionally under-mixed music, specifically the pop music. There are some bits where music is such a prominent element that it doesn’t have any trouble standing apart (specifically the ‘Firework’ sequence and end credits), but when pop and other vocally-endowed music is present, it’s often left quietly in the stereo channels where it’s mostly overpowered by sound effects. This does not apply to Hans Zimmer’s score, which, despite mostly aping other scores (some of his own, some written by other composers), is given a nice, round, LFE-heavy treatment even during the busier action beats.

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted


There are two commentary options to start the extras here. The first is a traditional commentary track with directors Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, and Conrad Vernon. This is an amusing enough track, I suppose, but it’s full of blank space and no one involved really seems to be interested in the commentary process. The participants spend a lot of time talking to the characters on screen, discussing how ‘great,’ ‘fun,’ or ‘tough’ the filmmaking process was, minus any real behind the scenes information. They also laugh a lot at their own jokes and annoyingly point to in-jokes without any context for the audience. But hey, everyone is having fun and crediting the crewmembers most of us ignore during the end credits, so the track is good for something. The other commentary is a picture in picture experience entitled The Animator’s Corner. This matches the similarly titled PiP experiences accompanying other DreamWorks Animation releases, including more discussion with the directors (who repeat themselves enough that you should probably just skip the pictureless commentary altogether), interviews with several of the film’s artists, technicians and animators, and a collection of behind the scenes images and videos (character designs, production art, work in progress animation, storyboards, animator reference video and photographs, et cetera). Other Blu-ray exclusive extras include a Get Them to the Train game (it kept freezing on my check disc, so I have no idea what the goal is) and a pop-up trivia track.

Next up is Big Top Cast (13:40, HD), featuring interviews with the directors, producer Mireille Soria, and actors Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith (is it still Smith?), Bryan Cranston, Jessica Chastain, and Martin Short. Ringmasters (15:30, HD) is a somewhat informative elongated EPK that follows the three directors through a single workday. It includes a storyboard review, editorial review, shooting effects and live action reference, animation reviews with the animators, scratch dialogue recording, and final dialogue recording with Martin Short. The Madagascar 3 roundtable (3:50, HD) finishes out the featurettes with Stiller, Rock, Schwimmer, and Pinkett Smith discussing the series. The other extras include three deleted scenes in test form with director introductions (6:20, HD), Mad Music Mash-ups music video…thing (1:00, HD), a sneak peek of the live action How to Train Your Dragon stage show (20:20, HD), and trailers. This limited edition set also contains a grotesquely vacuum-sealed, cellophane-wrapped rainbow wig.

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted


Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted is not a good movie from a story and character standpoint. It’s almost a terrible movie in terms of the series’ greater themes, since it blatantly betrays the end of the second film, though I’m not sure anyone is such a big fan of the Madagascar movies that they’d honestly care about retcons. I do, however, vaguely respect it from a purely visual standpoint. The almost aggressive disregard for story content and face-meltingly busy action compositions verge on the experimental, leaving the more grandiloquent critic in the back of my mind to wonder if perhaps I’ve just sat through a brilliant work of subversive art. Probably not, but it makes for a gorgeous 1080p experience and a busy DTS-HD MA soundtrack. The extras follow the lead set by other DreamWorks Animation Blu-rays, including a standout PiP commentary track.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.