The familiar strains of “Born Free” waft as a zebra bounces gleefully through open space. What could be better — you have four legs, all kinds of energy, and all the room in the world? And yet the fantasy ends quickly for Marty (voiced by Chris Rock). His waking life isn’t nearly so dulcet: he’s just turned 10 years old and he lives in New York’s Central Park Zoo. Besides, his best friend is Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), whose idea of a birthday present — one of the zoo’s bestselling Alex snowglobes — smacks of egomania. Ah well, you accept your friends as they are.
Marty’s been hearing about this place called “the wild” for some time now, but can’t figure precisely where it is or how to get there. Still, he wants out of the zoo (“I’ll be here for my whole life”, he wails), and won’t shut up about it to his friends, Alex, Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer, basically playing Ross as a cartoon; in future, he might want to stretch out some). These three are content where they are, with Alex especially reluctant to leave his cage with a view, because he’s pampered like a celebrity (he has a treadmill in his cage, has steaks delivered and his cage cleaned, and performs daily for enthusiastic crowds).
Still, when Marty makes a break one night, they all follow along in hopes of rescuing him (from himself? the wild? the subway?), and end up in Grand Central Station, where crowds of puny humans scatter and scream. Though Alex tries to take point on explaining their situation (they don’t mean to hurt anyone, they’re only recovering a wayward friend), all the humans hear is a massive lion roaring, and so they react with instant aggression: a little old lady whomps on him (“Bad kitty!”) and the cops shoot tranquiller darts (such that he lapses briefly into a colorful, kaleidoscopic reverie, to the tune of “Candyman”).
Not all is so lost as it appears: the adventure leads the zoo to think these creatures are more trouble than they’re worth, and so they are shipped off in crates on a ship (allowing a nicely abstract moment, as all four are stacked on one another, their forms silhouetted and contorted into rectangles). Before they learn their destination, a storm shipwrecks them, and all end up on the island of Madagascar, which seems at first just the sort of wild Marty pictured palm trees, nuts and berries, endlessly sunny beachfront property.
Alex starts whining immediately, worried about the lack of amenities and blaming Marty (who is gamboling along the water’s edge, thrilled with all the space) for their predicament. Though Gloria and Melman endeavor to mediate (let’s party, let’s be nice), the zebra and lion draw a literal line in the sand to mark their differences.
They’re briefly distracted from their tiff by the local color, a community of lemurs (the multi-typed, big-eyed creatures who do in fact inhabit this island exclusively). This mostly undifferentiated band of cuddly cuties offers three standouts, the fey and rambunctious King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen, otherwise known as Ali G), who is attended by Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer) and Mort (Andy Richter, who says of his character, in inimitably Richterian style, “I think it’s something to do with the roundness of the head, the tinyness of the nose, the giant eyes and also the voice. Mort has the cutest voice in Hollywood right now”). The lemurs are initially fearful of their guests, then enamored, when they discover that Alex can do his zoo show (roaring and prancing) in order to scare of the lemurs’ natural predators, the hyena-like fossas. Julien anoints the visitors the New York Giants, and for a minute, their futures look bright.
But even as Alex starts to believe he can repeat his zoo routine in “the wild,” his (and his friends’) vision is soon harshly readjusted by a simple, inevitable turn of events: he gets hungry. With his ribs sticking out and eyes turned dark, Alex begins to hallucinate his buddies are juicy steaks on legs. This provides the film with a mild illusion of tension. But, this being a children’s film, the question is less, “Will Alex eat Marty?” than, “How will the crew feed Alex so everyone can be friends again?”
The solution is less than clever (Alex can eat sushi, because, apparently, in this non-Nemo universe, fish “have no feelings” and, presumably, kid viewers won’t realize that sushi is fish). The lesson here is potentially useful — good friends are loyal to one another. And granted, most kids are used to seeing more explicit cartoon aggression and will be entertained by Madagascar‘s very colorful and very detailed animated antics. And if you’re six, the idea that your best friend might want to eat you isn’t so literal or alarming. It’s only when you’re older that the idea turns metaphorical and so, possible.