Sunday, November 16, 2008

Madagascar 2: A few steps forward for Dreamworks

Dreamworks animation is a touchy and often unpleasant subject for me. The studio revolves around money, and as far as commercial animation goes, Dreamworks is the worst of the lot. The last few years, it has seemed like the movies with the worst reviews make the most money. Now that is tragic (at least for me). For all I know, it is nothing new. But some of these films may never be revisited again, and I wonder if they are going to inspire artists in the future.
I recently caught Dreamworks' Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa. It picks up right where Madagascar left off, with the animals and guests making their way off Madagascar and hopefully back to New York.

As usual, the movie goes overboard with celebrity voices behind the characters. I am not the biggest fan of Ben Stiller (I'm not sure if I have met one yet), hence I don't enjoy seeing a character (Alex the Lion) who acts and sounds just like him. Its more or less the same with Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith, and David Schwimmer (although Chris Rock has some nice control vocally on the microphone).

The top performance of the film belongs to Sacha Baron Cohen as King Julien of the lemurs. This is no surprise as Cohen is a brilliant comedian, as well as chameleon. Cohen does what any great voice-over actor should do: he masks himself behind the visual, and breaths life into another character. In fact, I don't think Cohen has allowed himself to be photographed or taped performing his recording sessions for the movie, which is kind of admirable, as it maintains some mystique. This is the kind of celebrity that works best in animation.
The late Bernie Mac, who has a nice silent tribute at the end of the movie, does a pretty decent job as Alex's father. But the rest of the actors in the movie seem to be underused, and merely there to give some star credibility.
And of course, there is the issue of dialogue. Though its not all bad, some of it could have been better and less predictable. The parts of the story which are considered the emotional center, the dialogue felt predictable and used before.

However, there are some perks. A hallmark that has made me dread Dreamworks features is the overuse of pop-culture references. I don't mind a few, but I take artistic issue when the entire script is based all around them. The first Madagascar was no exception. But a couple of Dreamworks' last movies have cut back on the excess references, and here they continue to cut back. Because of this, I found the story to be less cluttered and easier to sit through.

And visually, as well as the first movie, it stands out from other Dreamworks pictures with a more unique design and color scheme. All the characters have simpler yet interesting shapes, and show a better focus on design than an obsession with realism. I love the way the lemur characters are designed. Although they are based on various species of lemur, their designs are all unique and have some features that distinguish them. And it is much more colorful, with an emphasis on coloring associated with African art.

All in all, not a great movie, but a pretty good movie.

There are vast improvements here that give a good impression. I can only hope the artists at Dreamworks continue these improvements, and their movies may actually reach a level of timelessness. And hopefully, Dreamworks can make some innovations of their own, instead of copying the innovations of Pixar. One innovation which I don't mind being copied is the idea of the credits being presented in original 2D graphics and animation.
Maybe one day, independent animated features will really take off, and Dreamworks will copy those.

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