Except for the marvelous military-minded penguins, the first two "Madagascar" offerings have been lame. The original 2005 film was a tepid animated offering that limped along like an aged, mangy lion with bunions. The sequel, three years later, ended up being little more than a crass menagerie.
They must have been saving the best for part three, as "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" is charming, beautifully animated and, best of all, side-splittingly funny. This is one of those rare occasions where the product has improved with age.
The film focuses on efforts by Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) to make their way home from Africa to the safe confines of their New York zoo. Their travels get them as far as Europe, where they take refuge with a traveling circus.
It's on this journey that the traveling critters learn who they really are.
A big problem with past "Madagascar" movies was uneven pacing. Both the comedy and action were doled out in bits and pieces. Directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath -- joined by Conrad Vernon for this film -- have found a much smoother pacing that doesn't allow for the dry spells of the previous animal antics.
Pacing's key because, except for Marty, with Rock's manic efforts, the central characters aren't that interesting. It helps that the screenplay by Darnell and Noah Baumbach allows all the characters to have their moments, from the narcissistic King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) to the always entertaining penguins.
Running off to join the circus is a bit of a cliché, but it certainly helps with the structure, as it allows for a herd of new characters. The larger ensemble is another reason the movie has such a comic consistency.
Stealing the show is French animal control expert Captain Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand). From a passionate Edith Piaf-style musical performance to her slick "Matrix" moves, she's one of the best animated villains ever created outside the Disney cartoon world.
Because of the weak writing, the first two "Madagascar" movies were like watching goldfish in a small bowl. Compared to them, "Madagascar 3" is like standing outside a shark tank. The experience is bigger and better in every way.
"Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted," rated PG for action scenes. Stars Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Frances McDormand. Directed by Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, Conrad Vernon. Running time: 93 minutes. Grade: A
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, email@example.com
or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.