Over the years, I've warmed up to Tom McGrath and Eric Darnell's "Madagascar", an animated comedy about pampered animals from the Central Park zoo who suddenly have to fend for themselves when they become stranded in the jungle. The film had some terrific one-liners and physical comedy, as well as fine voice work from its stars - including Sasha Baron Cohen, whose voice work as a lemur king created one of the funniest - and most bizarre - animated characters in ages.
The sequel starts off with a look back before the events of the first film and then leading up to the present, where the NYC animals - lion Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller), zebra Marty (Chris Rock), giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) and hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) - are thrilled to be able to leave in a broken-down plane that has been fixed up enough to get airborne. However, the flight has an unexpected stopover when both engines go out and the plane crash lands in Africa. They do have some company joining them: returning are lemurs King Julien (Cohen) and Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer), as well as the Penguin army (with director Tom McGrath providing the voice of the leader) and others.
While the new landscape initially spooks the creatures, things prove to be not as bad as first thought: Alex finds his parents (voiced by Sherri Shepherd and Bernie Mac) after having been separated for many years, Melman finds a new calling as a doctor, Gloria finds love and Marty finds a herd (all voiced by Rock) who share a lot in common with him.
Still, problems arise as Makunga (voiced by Alec Baldwin) tries to take the position of alpha lion away from Alex's father. Additionally, when the watering hole dries up later in the movie, the animals make a surprising discovery: a pack of lost humans - lead by Nana (the old woman who scolded the animals at Grand Central Station in the first film, this time she's with a tour group) - has set up a camp upriver.
"Madagascar 2" does a surprisingly good job keeping the concept fresh and the additional material between Alex and his parents (as well as Gloria's newfound love) give the picture a bit more heart. The performances from the original leads are still a lot of fun, and Baron Cohen once again steals scenes as King Julien. However, one main concern is the Baldwin character; while the actor does a nice job voicing the villain, there's just not much to the character, to the point where it almost seems as if the directors didn't quite know where to go with it. The animation also sees some improvements, as some elements (such as water effects) look smoother and overall detail looks even a step above the prior feature.
I'm not sure where this franchise could go next after this, but co-directors Darnell and McGrath have managed to make a sequel about as enjoyable as the first round.
VIDEO: "Madagascar 2: Escape From Africa" is presented by Dreamworks Home Entertainment in 1.78:1 (1080p/AVC). The presentation isn't without a few flaws, but the direct-from-digital transfer is largely gorgeous. Sharpness and definition are exceptional, as fine details were often crystal clear. While a few minor traces of noise and artifacting were seen, most of the film looked positively pristine. Colors remained punchy and bright, with excellent saturation and no smearing or other concerns. Overall, this was another delightful transfer from the studio.
SOUND: The film is presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. The audio remained fairly forward-heavy throughout the picture, but surrounds were employed at times to offer some effects, background details or mild reinforcement of the music. Much of the audio remains forward-heavy, but still nicely spread across the front soundstage. Audio quality is also quite pleasing, as music remains rich and bassy, while dialogue sounded crisp and well-recorded.
EXTRAS: The extras are presented in HD.
Darnell and McGrath are joined by two producers for an audio commentary for the film. While the group is certainly informative (going into such topics as scenes or specific story elements that were left out, working with the actors, developing the sequel, story issues and technical challenges), but the tone is a little on the dry side and the commentary does drag a little at times as a result.
A pair of featurettes ("It's a Family Affair" and "Making of 'Madagascar 2: Escape to Africa'") are promotional pieces that offer clips and interviews with cast and crew, who discuss their thoughts on coming back for a sequel and the direction of the story. "Crash Landing" is the most entertaining of the featurettes, and watches as the directors and animators literally act out a main sequence in the movie, and we see how their version of the scene influenced the final product. "Africa Adventure" watches as members of the production staff go on a field trip to Africa to learn more about the culture and creatures. "The Bronx Zoo: Madagascar" takes a brief look at some of the creatures on display at the Bronx Zoo's Madagascar exhibit. "Jambo Jambo" is an interactive feature that teaches viewers several different words/phrases in the Swahili language.
The Penguins are also shown in a pair of short animated adventures: "Gone in a Flash" and "Popcorn Panic" - both of them aren't anything too memorable, but they do offer a few laughs. We also get 4 music videos, trailers for other titles from the studio, the Dreamworks Animation Video Jukebox (which offers musical moments from movies from the studio) "Alex's Dance Off" and an interactive game: "Test Flight of Air Penguin".
Exclusive to the Blu-Ray is an enjoyable and informative optional trivia track, as well as "The Animator's Corner", a picture-in-picture feature that offers a look an interviews, storyboards and more.
Final Thoughts: "Madagascar 2" is a pleasant surprise, as it manages to keep the concept fresh while offering fine performances and a good deal of laughs. The Blu-Ray edition boasts excellent audio/video quality, as well as a reasonably good mix of supplemental features. Recommended.
The Film B+