Time to eat a few words. Not all of them, but a few.
Specifically, I hereby take back everything I've been saying to anyone who was ever within earshot of me while I complained loudly about the posters, billboards, bus ads and trailers for this, the latest Madagascar film. Of course, it's the franchise's fault I felt that way in the first place, shoveling out two earlier movies that were fine technical achievements built on generic, self-esteem-based plotlines and characters that could only be described as The One That's A Lion (Ben Stiller), The One That's A Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), The One That's A Giraffe (David Schwimmer), The Zebra That's Chris Rock and All The Monkeys and Penguins. Watch them, finish them, forget them, wish there'd been more penguins and monkeys. Believing in yourself is fine, but does every single talking animal in every single movie need to learn that lesson in front of a paying public?
And now we come to the moment when the Madagascarites, at long last tired of all that freedom on the African plains, yearn to be re-imprisoned in their former Manhattan zoo cages. Don't ask why they'd prefer that life, they just do. And it doesn't really matter anyway, because along the road to captivity they meet up with a crew of similarly domesticated animals, a traveling circus that's seen better days, and they stow away under false pretenses.
Together, the enlarged menagerie re-brand themselves as a laws-of-physics-defying Cirque du Soleil-style act, performing impossible acrobatic feats while trying to stay one step ahead of a cruel and cruelly funny French animal control official (Frances McDormand, who even stops to sings an Edith Piaf number when she's not flying through the skies on her scooter).
It's still largely about Not Much, the main characters still have a lot of catching up to do if they want to leave the kind of indelible impression of say, Woody or Buzz Lightyear, and you always want more mischief from the penguins and monkeys, but the final product feels like it got a giant energy transfusion. It's fast-paced, visually inventive, occasionally moving and, best of all, really funny on a level both kids and adults will appreciate, probably thanks to the arrival of co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach (The Fantastic Mr. Fox). There's a special kind of moviewatching pleasure that comes from expecting the worst kind of boredom and finding yourself shocked by how much fun you're having. At one point, a penguin yells to the airplane-flying monkeys, "Deploy shenanigans!" and you realize that the entire film feels like it's happily obeying that command.
But really, please, can somebody tell me why they want to go back to animal jail?