[8 June 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Do you ever feel like a plastic bag
Drifting in the wind, wanting to start again?
—Katy Perry, “Firework”
Madagascar 3 supports workers’ rights. Sort of.
True, it is above all a corporate product, designed to expand the brand and sustain the franchise. And true, the returning players mouth the usual mantras, that kids should be nice to each other, follow their dreams, and (get their parents to) buy stuff. Lots of stuff. As reported by Ad Age, tie-in merchandise ranges from videogames, stuffed animals, and apps to Children’s Claritin, McDonald’s Madagascar Happy Meals, and House Foods Organic Tofu.
But still, the movie conjures unlikely politicking for workers against owners. This conjuring begins with a dream. More specifically, it begins with Alex the lion’s (Ben Stiller) dream, in which he imagines he’s finally going home to New York, only to be thwarted by the lemurs, again. It’s not exactly clear, even when he wakes up, how he’s come to be unhappy in Africa, when he was happy in Africa at the end of Madagascar 2. It might be that he’s worried about growing old, as he dreams that his friends—Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer)—are looking variously ancient, in wheelchairs and on crutches. Or, maybe he misses his parents, now vanished (this too is unexplained). Whatever the reason, he and his buddies decide once more to move on.
This time, they head back to America by way of Monte Carlo. Along the way, they re-connect with some animals from before, including the penguins and chimps and King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen), accompanied by assorted minion-lemurs. Trying to win some casino money for their trip to NYC, they attract the attention of Police Capitaine Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand). Introduced in an office adorned with all manner of domestic animal and insect heads on plaques, she’s yearning to go after big game. When she learns of the chance to capture a lion, well, she’s instantly obsessed, indicated by her tendency to get down on her hands and knees and sniff the ground like a hound.
As you take note that DuBois is more crudely animal-like than the animals, her pursuit provides for a wild chase through the city (during which human cops are battered and broken), before the animals find refuge on a circus train headed out of town. Here they meet their next batch of animal friends, Vitaly the tiger (Bryan Cranston), Gia the jaguar (Jessica Chastain), and Stefano the sea lion (Martin Short), as well as a bear in a pink tutu who doesn’t speak, and so proves an irresistible love object for King Julien. (Their romance delivers multiple sight gags premised on the bear’s silent but very expressive immensity and the lemur’s incessantly chatty teeny-weeny-ness.) A couple of other relationships develop as well, as Alex falls for Gia, who believes his lie that he’s a circus lion who knows some tricks, particularly how to perform what they call “Trapeze Americano,” and Marty warms to Stefano when they discover a shared passion for being shot out of a cannon (this makes for some decent 3D business).
More important than these unsurprising pairings is the zoo animals’ decision to buy the circus. This plot point is rendered in a scant few seconds of montage, as Alex uses jewels stashed away by the penguins to pay off the human owners and sign a contract. This enables the animals to rethink the circus. On one hand, this means grappling with Vitaly’s tragic and traumatic past (it’s sort of a secret, but not so secret that Stefano doesn’t spill it via a lengthy flashback as soon as he’s asked). On another hand, it means coming up with a more marketable product, one whose profits will benefit the workers.
The updating process is framed as an old and new story: once the circus was spectacular, now it’s puny, and the new tricks (including Alex’s completely made-up and mostly accidental Trapeze Americano) lead to fame and fortune. Lights flash, music blasts (in particular, during a training montage, Katy Perry’s very overused “Firework”), and anonymous human customers cheer and clap. The returns are so terrific that the animals set up a tour of America, beginning in New York. It looks like Alex’s dream will come true after all.
There will be more conflict, more cartoony violence, more Capitaine (she has an especially weird moment performing Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien,” that rouses her men to rise up from their hospital beds, crack out of their casts, and join her, ookily running mascara and all). Amid such business, the animal workers owning their own business is pretty much forgotten. But for a brief, Katy Perry-fied moment, Alex and company are a company.