Powered by a dazzling circus act, a gaggle of goofy accents and a fresh dose of action-adventure silliness, “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” severs the DreamWorks toon franchise’s ties to reality entirely and emerges none the worse for it. Good-humored and endearing, full of energy and color (sometimes neon) if not quite Pixar-level invention, the series’ shortest and most ambitious entry sends its homesick menagerie in the direction of New York, with scenic and amusing stops in Monte Carlo, London and Rome along the way. Vigorous execution plus 3D premiums should spell beaucoup biz for the June 8 release.
This is the rare animated property that has consistently improved on its ho-hum origins, as 2008’s “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” delivered unexpectedly fine character shadings and a less grating sense of humor than the 2005 franchise-starter. Given an extra-loopy comic spin by scribes Noah Baumbach (who previously ventured into animation writing with “Fantastic Mr. Fox”) and Eric Darnell, “Madagascar 3” places a higher value on speed and spectacle than either of its predecessors, piling on the narrative lunacy to outlandish, even surreal ends.
Even though life is good in the African savannah, the series’ mane attraction, Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller), decides it’s high time he and his comrades — raucous zebra Marty (Chris Rock), nervous giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) and spirited hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) — return home to the Central Park Zoo. Story continuity not being a huge priority here, the other lions, zebras, giraffes and hippos the characters befriended in “Escape 2 Africa” are nowhere to be seen, making their decision to go all “Homeward Bound” an easy one.
Their plane, used to great effect in the first and second film, however, is on the French Riviera, where their wily penguin pals have gone clean out the casino. After a quick snorkeling trip across the Mediterranean, Alex and crew end up in a high-flying action sequence through the streets of Monte Carlo with the pic’s formidable new villain, a psychotic animal-control chief (Frances McDormand) who can rightly be called PETA’s worst nightmare, in hot pursuit.
To evade capture, Alex and his four-legged friends do the obvious thing and join the circus — specifically, a train full of down-on-their-luck animal performers who could wind up with a U.S. tour if they play their cards right. The proceedings are thus elevated by a conventional if sturdy let’s-put-on-a-show dynamic, courtesy of a slew of engaging new characters including sassy jaguar Gia (Jessica Chastain) and eager-to-please sea lion Stefano (Martin Short). Easily the most compelling addition to the furry ensemble is Vitaly (Bryan Cranston), a growling, foul-tempered Siberian tiger who always looks ready to offer you a bowl of poisoned Frosted Flakes.
The ethnic and cultural stereotyping is as broad as the spirited across-the-board voicework; Italy in particular takes the brunt of the cliches, not only from Short’s over-the-top accent but also from a brief montage of the Forum and the Vatican scored to Andrea Boccelli. It’s typical of the generally winning sensibility at work, however, that this sequence serves as the backdrop for a ridiculous interspecies romance between nutty lemur king Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) and an enormous bear on a bicycle, making it not just bearable but borderline lovely.
A bit crammed but not too crowded, zipping along at a well-modulated, rarely frenetic pace, “Madagascar 3” generates considerable excitement with a pair of circus-act climaxes that even the excessive use of Katy Perry’s ubiquitous pop single “Firework” cannot entirely extinguish.
The acrobatic mayhem is well-served by the consistently bright, eye-popping visuals, employing a much richer and more complex color palette than the series has yet attempted. The 3D application is far from subtle, shoving everything from animal snouts to flaming pieces of rubble into the viewer’s personal space, but goes for more nuanced layering effects in background shots.
Having pulled out all the stops, franchise helmers Darnell and Tom McGrath (joined here at the helm by Conrad Vernon) may well be hard pressed to scope out new frontiers for their animal creations after this. Should a rumored but still-unconfirmed fourth picture materialize, it would have to ship the characters to Asia or back in time — or both.