“Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” is the rare animated sequel that reps a notable improvement on its predecessor in every department. Lively and quite funny without being obnoxious, this follow-up smoothly mixes the original’s New York Zoo escapees with a number of engaging new characters they encounter upon crossing from Madagascar to the mother continent. With the first film’s creative team intact, this DreamWorks Animation franchise has been well tended to, meaning it’s reasonable to assume a repeat of the earlier outing’s $533 million worldwide haul (an unusually large percentage of which came from overseas).
Picking up where the story left off back in 2005, the tale has the group of misfit Gothamites preparing for a desperate, “Flight of the Phoenix”-like journey back to New York in a makeshift flying machine to be launched by giant slingshot. As before, there are twinkle-toed lion Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller), sassy zebra Marty (Chris Rock), neurotic giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) and voluptuous hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) — all anxious to get back to Manhattan, haphazardly piloted by their fellow refugee penguins and accompanied by wacky lemur King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his flunky, Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer).
But after a crazy flight, the plane makes it, not to Central Park, but to a glorious savannah populated by creatures such as the coddled protags have never seen before — their own kind, living in the wild. Not only that, but Alex is quickly recognized as the long-missing son of the local pride’s chief, Zuba (Bernie Mac). While the other animals mix with their own kind for the first time, Alex treads into “The Lion King” territory with a rite of passage that will grant him full status, only to be sabotaged by an evil pretender to the throne, the vain Makunga (Alec Baldwin).
Banished, Alex eventually regroups with his buddies and courts danger by leaving the reserve to restore the dwindling water supply. The environmental message is agreeably soft-pedaled in favor of some truly mad antics involving King Julien’s attempt to appease the water gods by presiding over a sacrifice into a volcano.
In fact, all moments of burgeoning sentimentality are short-circuited by irreverence and humorous one-upsmanship — everything is fair game, in often unpredictable ways. The first “Madagascar” grated due to the seldom restrained hysteria of the characters and an overall in-your-face aggressiveness that has periodically marred DreamWorks Animation fare. Here, even as the comedy has been cranked up several notches, the tone of the sequel has been smartly refined: The slapstick is inventively bumptious rather than gross, the innuendo suggestive instead of lewd, the verbal sparring more clever than crude. This may have something to do with a new writing collaborator, Etan Cohen, for writer-directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, but the upgrade is noticeable.
The four-leggeds have occasional run-ins with hunters and tourists, and none among the latter is as mirth-inducing as a take-no-prisoners old granny (Elisa Gabrielli) who takes it upon herself to singlehandedly uphold the combative reputation of New Yorkers with some fearsome martial-arts turns.
Among the other ace newcomers are Baldwin’s scheming Scar equivalent, out to thwart Alex, and a two-ton Lothario out to romance Gloria, drolly endowed with basso profundo intonations by songmeister will.i.am, who nicely handles scoring duties with Hans Zimmer.
Spreading the comic wealth around are Cohen, whose lemur monarch is now given sufficient screen time to emerge as memorably nutty; and the penguins, especially boss Skipper (co-helmer McGrath), who takes charge in every situation, and at one point is forced to compromise with monkey union negotiators over benefits.
Another enhancement is the film’s look. Even for computer animation, the colors are particularly rich, with effort obviously expended to achieve magic-hour light on the African wilds. Team hired ace cinematographer Guillermo Navarro as a consultant, which may account for the unusually pleasing compositions as well as some impressive moving camera shots.
One small continuity error: Paw birthmarks, resembling the outline of the African continent and shared by Alex and his father, are prominently featured in some scenes but are not present in others.