As a filmgoer, it’s been a thrill to see the “Madagascar” series develop with each installment, culminating in “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” which is by far the best picture of the franchise and continues Dreamworks Animation’s renaissance of quality product. Ditching most of the heartfelt pit stops that marked the previous features to race forward as a farce, the movie is grand family entertainment with substantial laughs and a thoughtful use of 3D, keeping the visuals and the punchlines flying fast as our animated heroes face an unstoppable enemy and find themselves lured into the majesty of the afro circus.
It’s not that “Madagascar 3” is cold-blooded, there’s just less of the obsessive inner restlessness that marked the first two installments, moving away from the foursome’s neuroses to push them into a whirlwind of activity. The latest animal effort is a chase picture across Europe, providing plenty of opportunity for screenwriters Eric Darnell (who also co-directs) and Noah Baumbach to dream up wild antics within foreign lands, populating the sequel with a host of brand new characters that genuinely rival the appeal of the four leads. Except for the penguins, those soldiers are pure magic. Although they have less to do here, the militaristic birds still manage to entertain, always amusing with their sneaky antics and sly comedy. The boys even indulge in a little gambling during the film, using their chimp comrades to invade high society.
Because the focus has shifted from stasis to chaos, “Madagascar 3” becomes more of a cartoon, always sniffing around for jokes, which range from primo physical action as the animals bend and bop around Europe to evade DuBois, to clever exaggerations of foreign behavior (DuBois performs “Non, je ne regrette rien” to inspire her troops), jabs aimed toward the Canadian work ethic, and some welcome dumb guy humor with Stefano, an instantly lovable sea lion who’s well aware of his mental limitations. “Madagascar 3” has genuine spark, keeping the adventure speeding along while massaging the digestible plot, which finds the friends facing their first real chance to return home, only to realize they may have romanticized their zoological prison.
There’s also a B-story with Vitalty, a daredevil tiger who’s lost his miraculous hoop-jumping drive to a horrible olive oil accident, leaving Alex to help refocus the brute’s skill. Love is in the air as well, with Alex and Gia finding a connection while training for a trapeze act, while Julien can’t help himself around a bicycle-riding bear, indulging in a few escapades during the film, including one that finds the lovers stealing the pope’s ring in Italy.
If anything, “Madagascar 3” is perhaps too indulgent, ordering up two powerhouse climaxes to finish off the movie, refusing to leave viewers with a simple lift of animal spirit at a neon circus scored to Katy Perry’s “Firework.” And who could really blame the filmmakers for their reluctance to exit the series at this point, especially with this newfound inspiration to carry the concept on rocket skates. Although the feature closes with a sense of circular justice for everyone involved, tying up the trilogy, it feels like a mistake to end it all here. With “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” the franchise is just finding its place as a marvelous source for animated comedy and 3D entertainment.