DreamWorks' "Madagascar" is pleasant, if mediocre family fare. Tale of Gotham zoo critters unprepared for their sudden transfer to the wild will please parents looking for an alternative to the violence of "Star Wars." But despite voice contribs led by Ben Stiller and Chris Rock, there's not much here to capture the imagination of any but smaller fry.

DreamWorks’ “Madagascar” is pleasant, if mediocre family fare. Tale of Gotham zoo critters unprepared for their sudden transfer to the wild will please parents looking for an alternative to the violence of “Star Wars.” But despite voice contribs led by Ben Stiller and Chris Rock, there’s not much here to capture the imagination of any but smaller fry. Without immediate competition for that target aud, pic should do good if unspectacular biz during early summer, with quick passage thereafter to a healthy home-format life.

A rooftop Central Park Zoo is home to a motley animal crew tame enough to co-exist under the same roof. It’s the 10th birthday of zebra Marty (Rock), prompting a celebration by his best pals — hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith, channeling ghetto fabulousness), hypochondriac giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) and lion Alex (Stiller), the star of their daily show featuring Marine World-type stunts.

Channeling jaded Manhattanites, the animals roll their eyes at Marty’s birthday wish: to glimpse life in the wild, a world he’s never experienced.

Somehow during the night, Marty sneaks off the premises. His panicked friends give chase, tracking him to Grand Central Station (he’d planned on taking the train to the wilds of Connecticut). But the general human havoc caused by the breakout pressures authorities to send the animals back to what the people believe is the critters’ native habitat.

Waking up from sedation in separate shipping crates on a huge sea vessel, the foursome end up tumbling overboard, washing ashore on a tropical beach. They soon discover the local population — a tribe of yellow-eyed, Ewok-y all-purpose mammals presided over by pompous King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his second-in-command Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer).

First glimpsed enjoying a sort of jungle rave, these herbivores have nary a care save one: the mongoose-like Foosa, a species whose eating habits include them on the menu. Little realizing just how non-threatening captivity has made the new visitors, the King hopes these “New York giants” can scare the predators off once and for all.

Meanwhile, the city critters are adjusting variably to life in paradise, spending most of their time blaming Marty and his wish for exiling them to this alien backwater where they actually have to feed themselves. It’s a task that poses a particular problem for Alex, who lives on juicy steaks, and has never needed to know where they come from. Hunger awakens instinct, however, stirring the Jekyll beneath his cityfied Hyde.

Script’s most interesting development thus arrives rather late, as Alex fights the rising compulsion to dine on his closest friends.

This conflict and the Foosa menace are dealt with in a decent climax, followed by a nondescript fade under the smooth guidance of co-helmers Eric Darnell (“Antz”) and Tom McGrath (“Ren and Stimpy Show”).

Pic’s hour and a half pass painlessly, but leave few lasting impressions. Character designs are cute (especially Alex, who will make a great plush toy). Voice turns are recognizable but not very inventive.Backgrounds are colorful, lush in the jungle scenes, but there’s no fresh look stamping pic as a uniquely conceived project. Rather it’s generically (and skillfully) assembled.

Like the studio’s “Shark Tale” and “Shrek 2″ last year, “Madagascar” aims to keep the grown-ups entertained mostly through movie in-jokes, especially with excerpted musical themes (from “Born Free,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “Chariots of Fire,” etc.). Viewers under 10 or so will find the emphasis on slapstick satisfying. Good running-gag involves a pack of plotting penguins who act like an elite espionage corps.

Pic has no original songs; closest thing to a production number is when the island populace gets jiggy to Reel2Reel’s “I Like to Move It, Move It.” Hans Zimmer’s clock-punching background score is par for a movie whose tech and creative contributions are polished but unremarkable.

One spelled-out “hell” and one spoken “sucks” (as well as forcing the kiddies to confront the dynamics of the food chain) presumably account for the PG rating.

Madagascar

Production

A DreamWorks release of a DreamWorks Animation presentation of a PDI/DreamWorks production. Produced by Mireille Soria. Co-producer, Teresa Cheng. Directed by Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath. Screenplay, Mark Burton & Billy Frolick, Darnell & McGrath..

Crew

Camera (Technicolor prints); editor, H. Lee Peterson; music, Hans Zimmer; production designer, Kendal Cronkhite-Shaindlin; art director, Shannon Jeffries; set designer, Douglas Pierce; character supervisors, Milana Huang, Robert Vogt; supervising animator, Denis Couchon; creative consultants, Peter Mehlman, Conrad Vernon; visual effects supervisor, Philippe Gluckman; head character animator, Rex Grignon; layout, Ewan Johnson; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Robert Renga, Craig Heath; re-recording mixers, Jim Bolt, Anna Behlmer, Andy Nelson; supervising sound editor, Richard L. Anderson; casting, Leslee Feldman. Reviewed at AMC Van Ness 1000, San Francisco, May 17, 2005. MPAA rating: PG. Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Voices: Alex the Lion - Ben Stiller Marty the Zebra - Chris Rock Melman the Giraffe - David Schwimmer Gloria the Hippo - Jada Pinkett Smith King Julien - Sacha Baron Cohen Maurice - Cedric the Entertainer Mort - Andy Richter

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