Monday, June 25, 2012

The Madagascar Problem

I recently watched Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted. Twice. The second time in 3D. After the first two films, which I did not pay to see thanks to the public library and their fantastic DVD collection, I never expected to give this third installment my money. Twice. Thankfully, I was wrong. (Yes, I'm going to talk about a kids' movie. It's a great film, get over it.)

That raises the question of why I wasn't expecting much of this third movie. It goes back to the first two installments, which I can sum up with two words: wasted potential. The first two Madagascar movies had a lot going for them. Great cast. Interesting characters. A neat premise. Sacha Baron Cohen. How could they go wrong? Simple.

It was all setup and little payoff.

Both movies set the stage for the finale very well. However, setting the stage isn't enough. For instance, if a character happens upon a bazooka in Act I, you'd expect to see that bazooka again at the end. When that character is holding the bazooka, imagining what he or she would do with it, you know (or hope) that at the end of that story, this bazooka we've spent so much time getting to know will reappear when it's clutch time. That's called payoff.

The second movie, in my mind, is the most egregious offender. Our characters land in Africa and discover a nature preserve full of their own kind. We come to find out that Alex the Lion was born there but thanks to a bungled poaching, was instead put in the New York Zoo. Marty the Zebra finds an entire herd of zebras and is dismayed to feel like he's not unique. Mort the lemer spends half the movie getting chased by a hungry shark on land.

So we have three elements: poachers, a herd of zebras, and a land shark. Sadly, the villain in this movie isn't a poacher. We never hear from them again and they don't get brought to justice. The herd of zebras is nowhere in the finale, when a rampaging mob of black and whites would best come to the rescue. The hungry shark doesn't stop the bad guys, it just falls into a volcano. All setup, little if any payoff.

Both Madagascar 1 and 2 suffered from a lacking payoff, which is why I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the third one finally understood how to set up and execute a story. This time our intrepid heroes stow away on a circus train while being pursued by a psychotic animal control officer. There's the setup and a clear villain.

The payoff? Brilliant. I won't give it away, in case you haven't seen it. I will say that there are several big payoffs in the finale. The new characters we meet actually serve a purpose, and if a bazooka was even talked about in the beginning of the movie, we see it fired by the end. If you always rooted for these movies to work, you'll be happy with this one.

And part of the reason it works is actually referenced in the movie. Part of the plot involves our heroes teaching these circus animals some new tricks. If they don't change the game, if they stick with the acts that kept disappointing audiences, then their circus was doomed. The writers, like our characters, had to rebuild from the ground up and change the game.

This is why I love this new movie, why I paid to see it again in 3D. I wanted to see a Madagascar movie that actually worked from start to finish.

Part of why this movie works may rest in the spin-off television series The Penguins of Madagascar. If you've never seen it, you should. It stars all the awesome supporting characters from the movie - the psychotic penguins and insane lemurs. The writing is sharp and witty, and it's incredibly funny.  The show also knows how to properly set up and pay off a plot, and perhaps that helped the writers of the movie figure out how to do that.

It's rare that the third installment of a series is the best of the bunch, an honor reserved for the likes of Toy Story 3 and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I think it's safe to say that Madagascar 3 is not part of that proud fraternity.

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