LOS ANGELES - In the teeming banquet of humanity, Jada Pinkett Smith is the size of an hors d’oeuvre. Which has not, in defiance of most conventional thinking, made her happy.
“I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing,” said the 5-foot-tall actress, “but I’ve always wanted more body. So I got to play a hippo.”
Correction: She got to play a hippo again. Pinkett Smith, Ben Stiller, David Schwimmer, Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen all reconverge in “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” the sequel (opening Friday) to a movie that has grossed more than half a billion (BILLION!) theatrical dollars worldwide.
“I was like, ‘Really?!’” Pinkett Smith said.
But it had always been the plan to maneuver “Madagascar” into franchise-hood.
“The idea was always to support more than one movie,” Stiller said. “That’s how Jeffrey (Katzenberg, DreamWorks co-president) talked about it. And we’ll do another, if there are enough fresh ideas.
“But I think the second one was much more enjoyable because we learned so much on the first one about who the characters are.”
Those characters, all onetime inhabitants of the Central Park Zoo, include Stiller’s Alex, the so-called “King of New York” and the big-cat version of “High School Musical’s” Lucas Grabeel.
“Yeah, it’s about Alex being accepted,” Stiller said of the story, “and not being the most macho lion. And being in show business. You could certainly take it to another level, though I think that, again, there’s a good layer of subtext in the movie: ‘This could be that,’ or ‘That could be this.’ But there is certainly a lesson about father and son coming together. And Alex being accepted for who he is.”
In New York, Alex enjoys zoological stardom, but in Africa he has to prove himself according to the ways of his tribe - and his father, Zuba (the late Bernie Mac). The issues of identity and adjustment affect all the characters, including Gloria, the saucy hippo (PinkettSmith); Melman, the neurotic giraffe (Schwimmer), and Marty, the wisecracking zebra (Rock).
In the first film, the group left the confines of the animal preserve known as Manhattan, ending up on the island of Madagascar (where they met Julien the Lemur King, voiced like a Mumbai-based telemarketer by Sacha Baron Cohen). In the new film - and, again, following the lead of the penguins - the Central Park posse patches together a plane and heads for New York, crash-landing instead on the African savannah.
Children’s literature (including movies) is often about the misplaced misfit or outsider finding his or her true home, and true family. The “Harry Potter” series is a prime, contemporary example (Harry is abused by his relatives, and embraced at Hogwarts). But the grass-is-greener (and “I must have been adopted”) phenomena occur throughout fiction, sometimes happily (“Oliver Twist”) and sometimes in ways that turn the whole idea upside down (“Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “Treasure Island”).
“Madagascar 2” has classic kid lit in its DNA. Alex’s origin story - he was poached in infancy, and indirectly made his way to the Central Park Zoo - is all about an archetypal homecoming, something always irresistible to children. Not that anyone ever outgrows it.
“I have a lot of different ‘homes,”” said Pinkett Smith, gesturing toward herself. “My ancestry is very diverse. But Africa is one of those places where I have a real sense of purpose and connection.”
The actress had been to Tanzania recently with husband Will Smith, working on behalf of the philanthropic organization Malaria No More (malaria nomore.org), distributing mosquito netting in the bush. The trip was unconnected to the movie, except in that sense of homecoming: Just as the animals in the film are overjoyed to find lions and zebras and hippos of their own kind, humans respond likewise.
“Even as adults,” she said, “we’re looking for those like-minded groups - we’re looking for our herd. So I could relate when Gloria goes and sees the group of hippos and Marty sees the zebras, Melman the giraffes and Alex with the pack of lions. But the great thing that unfolds in the movie is the idea that home is wherever your love is.
“It may not be in the house you grew up in, or even the nation you grew up in. But as long as you can identify with it, it’s yours.”
“Yours” for Pinkett Smith includes one member of the cast - daughter Willow, who voices the baby Gloria. Likewise, Stiller’s son, Quinn, voices the baby Alex. Like most celebrities who do cartoon voices, being in something their children can relate to is prime motivation (that, and the easy money). Mostly, though, “Madagascar 2” is about a group of misfits who find that home. At the risk of sounding cynical, it’s not a bad strategy for a movie.
BEN STILLER THINKS LIKE A KID AND AN ADULT
Ben Stiller didn’t have children when he started doing the first “Madagascar.”
“It was in 2001, was right around ‘Zoolander,’” he said. “I had just gotten married and we hadn’t had Ellie yet. I knew we wanted to have kids and thought it would be fun to do something that, by the time it was done, we might have kids.”
Stiller, less dark and more softly handsome than he appears on screen, acknowledged the parental dilemma inherent in so much children’s entertainment.
“When you want to make a movie for the family,” he said, “you don’t want to leave out the adults. As a parent, I always appreciate it when I can enjoy the movie, too. There are kids’ movies and DVDs that don’t appeal to adults and they’re tough. I got so brainwashed by the Wiggles I started to get into it. ‘The Big Red Car. ‘The Big Red Boat ...’
“So the idea is the animation is so vibrant and cool and the colors are great, all that stuff, it’s easy to watch. And there are these characters you can identify with. They have a real relationship with one another. And on top of that, you have humor and jokes that only adults can get. You like it when you can elbow your wife and say, ‘They have no idea that that’s funny.’ A lot of that stuff goes right over kids’ heads.”
“That stuff” is largely the work of several subordinate but hilarious characters - Nana, the purse-swinging Florida retiree voiced by Elisa Gabrielli; Skipper, the chief penguin voiced by the film’s co-director, Tom McGrath, and of course, Julien the Lemur King (voice by Sacha Baron Cohen), around whom a movie - or a series, or a lifestyle - could be built.