Movies, like people, benefit from a great first impression, and the animated sequel Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted certainly leads with its strongest sequence. Opening with an elaborate chase scene through Monte Carlo, the filmmakers keep adding physical and verbal gags with dizzying confidence until the sequence establishes its own laws of physics -- like when the Road Runner could hover in the air forever while Wile E. Coyote would plummet to the ground. It's arguably the best sustained bit in any of the Madagascar films, and it builds up such good will that we can forgive the rest of the picture for never matching it.
The story this time around is that dear friends Alex the Lion (voice of Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer), and Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) leave Madagascar and wind up in Europe, where they are chased by Captain Chantal DuBois (Frances McDormand), a police officer whose greatest joy is mounting the heads of animals she's killed on her office walls. The menagerie hide out in a circus train, and they eventually decide to buy the company and put on a show so entertaining that they will be booked to perform in New York City, finally allowing them to return home.
With a co-screenwriting credit by Noah Baumbach, you might expect something different from the third film in this successful franchise, but the result is more of a consolidation than a reinvention. The jokes are better, the characters' emotional arcs give everything a solid foundation, and the voice actors who are new to the series (McDormand, Martin Short, Bryan Cranston) all bring fresh energy to a cinematic universe that looked to be creatively spent halfway through Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.
Dreamworks has three very different animated tentpoles. The fractured fairy-tale Shrek films have made billions of dollars worldwide, the Kung Fu Panda movies are the studio's most artistically successful, and the Madagascar franchise falls somewhere in between those two. With comic talents like Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, and Sacha Baron Cohen, these movies have a higher bar to clear than the average family film. It would be easy for everyone to coast through these films, but Cohen is as uninhibited -- if markedly less dangerous -- here as he is in his own starring vehicles, and Rock has never had a better vehicle for transferring his stand-up skills to the big screen. These movies meet our expectations -- occasionally providing a few moments of unexpected, smart hilarity -- but nothing more.
Audiences would have been rightfully exhausted had the film tried to maintain the manic energy of its first big scene, but if the creative team had managed to get close to it a few more times, they would have had a standout movie. As it is, Madagascar 3 is satisfying without ever aiming for greatness.