(2005) ** 1/2 Pg
86 min. DreamWorks Pictures. Directors: Tom McGrath, Eric Darnell. Cast: Andy Richter, Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett-Smith, David Schwimmer.

Madagascar is decidedly unsuited for adults, but not for lack of trying on the part of PDI/DreamWorks. With a premise described as "Friends or Seinfeld on a desert island" and jokes like a promise to fling poo at Tom Wolfe, screenwriters Mark Burton, Tom McGrath, Billy Frolick, and Eric Darnell and "creative consultants" Peter Mehlman (Seinfeld), Karey Kirkpatrick (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), and Ted Tally (Oscar-winning screenwriter of Silence of the Lambs) aim middle but land low. But kids won't mind, as they giggle at the likeable characters and widen eyes to the colorful spectacle.

Like Seinfeld, Madagascar focuses on a group of four neurotic New Yorkers, only here they're Central Park Zoo animals: Alex (Ben Stiller), the star-attraction lion; Marty (Chris Rock), a zebra with veldt-vaulting dreams scored to "Born Free"; Melman (David Schwimmer), a hypochondriac giraffe; and Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith), a sassy hippo. Taking a cue from a quartet of P.O.W. penguins determined to dig, assault, and hijack their way home to Antarctica, birthday-boy Marty tries to take a subway train out of town. When his friends follow to talk sense into him, the entire foursome winds up crated and shipped to sea.

Circumstances conspire to deposit the city slickers on the shores of "the wild," where enthusiastic lemurs (ruled by a hilarious Sascha Baron "Ali G" Cohen) hope Alex and Co. will protect the Madagascar locals from the marauding foosas that threaten their lives. Long stretches go by with very little happening (and sometimes happening again), but in a questionable, belated effort to develop a plot, the writers have Alex go native, reverting suddenly to his killer instinct and attempting to eat his friends (imagine Dumbo turning red-eyed and chomping on Timothy Q. Mouse, and you'll start to see the problem here).

Madagascar has too short of an attention span to make a coherent point about animal nature, and the script regularly falls short of witty. On the other hand, it's well-stocked with sight and sound gags, even if the lion's share of them are exhausted "zany" pop-culture references (Saturday Night Fever, The Twilight Zone, Cast Away, Planet of the Apes: the list goes on). In one lazy and unfortunate run, the Chariots of Fire theme kicks in mere seconds after a Hawaii 5-0-theme bit. Is this all there is?

Pretty much, yeah. The voices are cute, but Cohen and his sidekick (voiced by Cedric the Entertainer) upstage the leads, and the lack of narrative drive after the midpoint gives the impression of a long walk off a short pier. For parents, I suppose all's well that ends in 86 minutes, and I see no compelling reason to begrudge the kiddies of this mostly amiable timewaster, but this one's hardly destined to join the crowded top shelf of animated winners.

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