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A FUN BUT FORMULAIC CALL OF THE WILD.

Byline: Glenn Whipp Film Critic

'MADAGASCAR'' follows the classic fish-out-of-water format, yanking four thoroughly domesticated animals from the Central Park Zoo and plunking them in the wild, wild kingdom.

This computer-animated kid-pleaser has everything we've come to associate with a DreamWorks animated movie - beautiful imagery, plenty of riffs on pop culture, talking animals that lend themselves nicely to merchandising - but, as with last fall's ``Shark Tale,'' it's apparent that the formula is beginning to grow a bit stale.

The movie's roster of send-up scenes includes homages to ``Saturday Night Fever,'' ``Chariots of Fire'' and ``Planet of the Apes,'' but the writers of ``The Simpsons'' have been doing this sort of thing for years and with much better results. (``Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius,'' anyone?) The jokes, concocted by four credited writers (and who knows how many polishers), too often seem rote, like bones tossed to parents to keep them interested while attending the movie with their tots.

That said, there are enough connections here to make for pleasant family entertainment. Take the following sequence: A talking monkey (another ``Simpsons'' specialty) tells a simian friend (using a very proper English accent): ``I heard Tom Wolfe is speaking at the Lincoln Center.'' The other monkey replies, using sign language, prompting the British monkey to answer, ``Well, of course, we're going to throw poo at him.''

That joke works because A) talking monkeys are inherently funny, B) it nails behavior and C) it has the word ``poo,'' which breaks up my 4-year- old every time she hears it. ``Madagascar'' is at its best when it is able to combine these elements, not when it's lampooning ``Cast Away.''

The movie follows four best friends - Marty the Zebra (voiced by Chris Rock), Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) - who go from a pampered life at the New York City Central Park Zoo to the jungles of Madagascar. In the zoo, the lion was able to lay down with the zebra because he had a steady diet of steak brought to him. In the wild, there's no steak - just zebra, which, as Alex's instincts begin to take over, begins to look pretty good.

Watching Alex try to suppress these dark impulses gives the movie a solid conflict, but the filmmakers take too long to develop this gambit. Instead, they deliver conniving penguins and a band of adorable ring-tailed lemurs, the latter of which one-up George Lucas' Ewoks if only for Sacha Baron Cohen's (aka Ali G) loopy vocals as the group's sweetly pompous king. The characters are fine; it's the story that drags.

Ultimately, ``Madagascar'' is content with being a genial kids' movie, cute, sporadically clever, rarely memorable. Kids won't complain. But DreamWorks animation honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg should remember how his old company, Disney, ran the musical theater concept into the ground with its animated movies. In today's pop culture, where the shelf life grows shorter by the day, you'd better come up with a new formula fast (or better yet, just a good story) or risk becoming yesterday's news.

Glenn Whipp, (818) 713-3672

glenn.whipp(at)dailynews.com

MADAGASCAR - Three stars

(PG: mild language, crude humor, some thematic elements - i.e., a lion viewing his zebra friend as steak.)

Starring: Voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith, David Schwimmer.

Directors: Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath.

Running time: 1 hr. 26 min.

Playing: Wide release.

In a nutshell: Better than ``Shark Tale,'' not as good as ``Shrek.'' Follows the format of both those movies.

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Zoo denizen Alex the lion (voice of Ben Stiller) and his pals find themselves in unfamiliar terrain in ``Madagascar.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 27, 2005
Words:612
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