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ANIMAL MAGNETISM 'MADAGASCAR' IS ON THE PROWL TO BE NEW KING OF THE ANIMATED JUNGLE.

Byline: Rob Lowman Entertainment Editor

In DreamWorks' new animated film, ``Madagascar,'' Marty (a zebra voiced by Chris Rock) tries to get Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller) to try to escape with him from New York City's Central Park Zoo by telling him the penguins are already tunneling out.

``The penguins are psychotic,'' Alex screams back in disbelief.

The line sounds like something one of those uptight comic characters Stiller is so well-known for portraying in movies like ``Meet the Parents'' would say. But Alex is an uptight lion who has never left the confines of the zoo.

And that's the point.

When DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg brought Rock, Stiller, Jada Pinkett Smith (Gloria the hippo), and David Schwimmer (Melman the giraffe) into the project, he wanted them to bring their personalities to the film.

``I didn't even know I was a zebra until yesterday,'' joked Rock when a journalist asked about what he did to find his inner zebra for the role. ``I thought I was a muskrat.''

Rock was, in a sense, playing himself in this story Katzenberg conceived about four zoo animals raised in captivity who were being shipped to the wilds of Africa. Like the others, Rock was encouraged to improvise from the script he was given. Producer Mireille Soria says that after the actors are done, the filmmakers get to pick and choose what to keep, and that is incorporated into the film.

The results paid off handsomely in ``Madagascar.'' Sacha Baron Cohen (better-known as Ali G) is hilarious as King Julian, leader of the lemurs. The filmmakers and Katzenberg agree that it was Cohen's off-the- wall humor that made the character.

Soria says Cohen ``had lines that had us in tears because we were laughing so hard, but a lot of them were X-rated.''

``All of my clean jokes are in the movie,'' Rock says with a grin. ``All the dirty ones are in a factory somewhere else.''

The filmmakers, though, did videotape the audio sessions and used some of the gestures of the actors as models while animating their characters. So there's a lot of Cohen in the Julian you see on the screen.

Like the ``Shrek'' films and ``Shark Tale,'' which also relied on the voices of hip comedians, ``Madagascar'' has a similar feel with its edgy humor and pop references, including comic homages to films like ``American Beauty'' and ``Cast Away,'' and even a famed ``Twilight Zone'' episode.

All of this is beginning to add up to what could be called a DreamWorks animation style.

``When we started 10 years ago, we tried to find something that was ours,'' says Katzenberg, who after leaving Disney formed DreamWorks in 1994 with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, and has been trying to match his own company ever since.

``Walt Disney had this amazing mission statement that he was making movies for children and for the child in all of us. That informed every decision every day that everybody involved in that enterprise did in terms of those movies. In starting DreamWorks Animation, it was really important to me that we find something that could be our own - out of respect, out of admiration, out of competitiveness - and probably 98 percent out of ego, by the way,'' Katzenberg adds with a smile.

Over the years, the animation studio tried different forms - a serious movie like ``Prince of Egypt,'' a New York comedy in ``Antz,'' a Claymation movie in ``Chicken Run'' and adventure movies like ``Sinbad.''

``Then 'Shrek' kind of happened. And 'Shrek' is our Holy Grail. ... It really did define what a DreamWorks animated movie should be,'' says Katzenberg.

Film critic and scholar Leonard Maltin, who has written books on animation, says Katzenberg has shown from the the beginning that he wants to appeal to ``a somewhat hipper crowd with somewhat topical humor and a somewhat edgier approach.''

Another thing that marks a DreamWorks animated film, he says, is casting. ``Katzenberg believes in putting stars in his animated movies,'' a practice the critic isn't keen on. ``While 'The Incredibles' was sold on the content and the characters, 'Madagascar' is being sold essentially on the name value of its cast.

The film's co-director Tom McGarth doesn't see this as a problem, noting that ``you could make the same argument in a live action film.''

Adds Soria, ``There is a reason that Chris Rock is where he is - he's funny.''

Maltin feels that strategy can backfire, though, as it did in ``Sinbad,'' which he calls a good film with a good story, but one that DreamWorks sold on the names of its stars, Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones - and it failed.

Still, ``Sinbad'' wasn't a comedy like recent DreamWorks Animation films, and the star casting trend will continue next year with ``Over the Hedge,'' featuring the voices of Jim Carrey and Garry Shandling.

Some critics are beginning to tire of too many pop references. ``When you do one music cue gag, it's amusing; when you do six in a row, it's a little wearisome,'' says Maltin.

Soria defends the practice, saying that the jokes still have to work without the pop references.

``Even if they don't get the 'American Beauty' reference, steaks falling from the sky are funny because you get that Alex is hungry and he's having this fantastic dream.''

And if a kid doesn't get a joke, adds co-director Eric Darnell, ``There's still a talking lion up there.''

Whether the shelf life of DreamWorks animated films will be lessened by all the pop references is another question.

``No one seems to be concerned about lasting value anymore,'' says Maltin. ``Not when you can make hundreds of millions of dollars now. I'm not sure anybody, including Disney, is thinking about posterity.''

But maybe Katzenberg is.

Darnell sees what they are doing at DreamWorks as a continuation of the Disney legacy. ``In some ways, Jeffrey Katzenberg represents that continuum, because he was at Disney when they were doing some of their greatest contemporary animated films, like 'Lion King,' 'Little Mermaid' and others.''

For Katzenberg's part, he says, ``With a wink and a nod to Walt Disney, we make adult movies that appeal to the adult in every child. We try to come at it from the opposite direction, but if we achieve our goal, we get to the exact same place.''

Rob Lowman, (818) 713-3687

robert.lowman(at)dailynews.com

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 27, 2005
Words:1070
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