It’s safe to say that Hollywood has finally figured out the family film. Not in a good way, mind you, but in an instantly profitable paradigm which guarantees coffers of cash either before or after the mandatory DVD release. While some might question the callousness of such a statement, the truth is that more of the major studios are sinking their dwindling production pot into films that fill up the G to PG-13 arena. While live action fare can’t really compete (only High School Musical and Hannah Montana have proven that humans can put butts into stadium seats), animation remains king. And not just any cartoon concept, but the sparkling techno geekiness of computer generated imagery.
Over the last year, the town of Tinsel has released several 3D titles. There was Kung Fu Panda, Wall-E, Fly Me to the Moon, Space Chimps, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Igor, and Horton Hears a Who. While few passed the patented quality assurance, there were those - Panda, Wall-E, Horton - that rose above the creative din to avoid the genre’s curse. Indeed, ever since Pixar proved the viability of motherboard made entertainment, a motion picture blight has risen up inside the world of animation. Another example of it arrives this Friday, 7 November with the release of the unnecessary, uninspired sequel Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.
Many know it as the Fox/Dreamworks design, and it goes a little something like this: hire yourself a group of recognizable voice actors, preferably from mediums (TV, music) that provide some conceptual crossover appeal; take your spec screenplay and strip it of anything remotely resembling complicated characterization or narrative; insert multiple examples of lame pop culture quipping, everything from tempered Top 40 hits to fame whore in-joking; offer up a few mindless musical montages; and don’t forget the borderline offensive toilet humor and bodily fluid/noises jokes. Wrap it all up in a ribbon of riot act ridiculousness, a level of ADD inspired attention spanning that will leave the underaged spent and the adult feeling they got their Cineplex-inflated money’s worth, and you’ve got a F/D derivative. And a big fat hit, probably.
It’s a talent pool temperament that’s tainted everything from the shrill Shrek (and his two and counting sequels), the rusty Robots, the icky Ice Age efforts and the mindless Madagascar. Of course, such criticism hardly matters when said group accounts for several hundred MILLION dollars in box office returns. Yet to argue that money equals quality is a lot like stating that volume equals pitch. Just because a film rakes in an unconscionable cavalcade of currency doesn’t mean it’s a categorical classic. In the case of these CG slurries, the exact opposite seems to be true. The more money they bring in, the more mediocre and strident they seem to be. Malcolm McLaren had it right - cash from chaos.
Take Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. As franchise fodder goes, it’s a brainless combination of everything that made the first film so stiff with an amplified idea of how to repeat said achievement. This isn’t art, it’s pure commerce draped in an undeniable coating of focus group faith-based marketing. The pre-planned pleasures in the story are so obvious they shimmer. As the four main animals from the first outing discover the pros and cons of returning to their native land, the audience it treated to dim satire, punch lines that bang into each others like tweeners at a Jonas Brothers concert, and a gorgeous amount of visual splendor spoiled by obvious overacting from a cast who seem to base their performance level on the number of zeroes in their residual checks.
Clearly, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa was made with the intent of keeping children’s tiny synapses engaged so as not to allow for any questioning or concern. Yet the film goes so far as to offer up two additional ideals that seem to have no place in such family-oriented entertainment. The first is fairly obvious - violence. This is a very vicious film. Alex is seen as a helpless lion cub, then when kidnapped, his heroic father chases the poachers until a huge gun barrel dislodges a round right into daddy’s…earlobe. While no blood is shown, the character carries the missing piece/scar around the rest of the film. Equally concerning are the sequences with Mort the Mouse Lemur. He is seen trying to enter an airplane, mid-air, and then after he survives the eventual crash, he is chased by a shark that can apparently live outside the water for inordinately long periods of time.
And it goes on. There is a battle between Alex and a muscle-bound lion, another time for the critters to take on a band of desperate (and hungry) tourists. All of which brings us to Nana, the “feisty” old lady from the first film. A short slapstick sequence originally, she is fleshed out here, given to fits of Jason Voorhees like punishment and a Lord of the Flies mentality that just doesn’t mesh with the movie’s lighter tone. It’s hard to support such outright hostility, especially when it’s really not delivered for comic effect. Imagine, if you will, that Yosemite Sam finally managed to get his stubbed up paws on that “rascally varmint” Bugs Bunny…and then spent 45 seconds beating the ever lovin’ stuffin’ out of him. No wit. No physical comedy shtick. Just an endless beat down. Nana gets two chances at this throughout the course of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. How nice.
But perhaps the most disconcerting element here is the weird sexualization of the animals. Gloria, the feisty female hippo, spends the majority of her journey through the veldt pining away for a partner. Not a soul mate, or a friend, but a big time booty call. She eventually gets the big eye from a new character called Moto Moto. During a late night rendezvous which sounds suspiciously like a hook up in a Chubby Chasers chat room, the two give new meaning to the concept of disturbing double entendres. From the glamour shots of our hefty heroine poising provocatively to Moto making like Fabio and flexing his flab, it’s the grade schooler equivalent of watching the foreplay in a particularly disturbing animated porno. Even a strange shot of our lothario’s butt managed to draw audible gasps from the standard screening audience.
All of which begs the question - how, exactly, is this family fare? Are we to assume that Walt Disney, the man who started the entire feature length animation craze, would approve of putting such content into his films? Sure, Bambi’s mother died, and Pinocchio was threatened by the biggest whale his pen and ink posse could create. But would the man behind the House of Mouse condone random acts of senseless brutality? Or maybe Dumbo’s mom should have received a last minute conjugal visit before she was carted off to her mad elephant cage. Certainly it’s an exaggeration to see these sequences as anything more than minor reflections of their more mature counterparts, but they also suggest something desperate about the continual cannibalization of the CG genre. Hollywood usually gets the family film right - at least when it comes to the preprogrammed manner in which they make these movies and money. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is either a fluke, or something to be wary of in the future. Perhaps, it’s a little of both.