The problem I always had with DreamWorks Animation’s movies was that they were emotionally lifeless. Compared to their contemporaries, DWA’s films lacked any depth, even by cartoon standards. Oh, there were pixels… pixelating in the right places, appropriately crescendo-laden musical scores, and dialogue straight out of a Deepak Chopra book, but you knew it had been done better before. The great ‘toon creators, from Walt to Warner to Miyazaki to Pixar, all somehow managed to portray their creations’ humanity convincingly.
I’m happy to say “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” reverses this trend. Not because of any great leap forward in technique, but because in Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller) and Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), we finally have the first unabashedly gay characters in a major Hollywood animated feature.
The clues weren’t as apparent in the first movie, mostly because it wasn’t that good; there’s not much story to speak of, far too much emphasis on the frankly uninteresting main cast (the penguins, chimps, and lemurs all deserved to have their own feature before this sequel was even greenlighted), and one could argue that Alex and Marty’s effeminate mannerisms were a result of living in proximity to so many New York homosexuals. We did, however, get a glimpse of things to come in the scene where Alex lovingly chews on Marty’s rump after they end up overseas.
“Escape 2 Africa,” really allows the pair to explore their feelings while at the same time providing illuminating background. The movie opens with a flashback to proud father Zuba (a barely recognizable Bernie Mac) futilely attempting to teach his young son Alex how to fight. To Zuba’s chagrin Alex would rather sing and dance, leading Zuba’s rival Scar… er, Makunga (Alec Baldwin) to challenge Zuba for leadership. It’s never said, but the implication – a lion that sires a sissy can hardly be fit to lead a pride – is clear to anyone paying attention. While they do battle, unscrupulous poachers capture Alex, Kunta Kinte-style. Zuba gives chase, but is unsuccessful. As the poachers’ Jeep drives off, one can almost hear him lamenting how he “loves his dead, gay cub.”
Back to the present-day, where Alex, Marty, Melman (David Schwimmer), and Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) attempt to fly out of the lemur kingdom of King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) on a rebuilt Air Penguin plane. The menagerie goes down in the savannah – by amazing coincidence – not 500 yards from the game reserve where Alex was born. The four principals find themselves drawn to this foreign utopia, where food and water are plentiful (even though none of the large carnivores appear to need meat in this Eden-esque paradise) and everyone speaks English.
Alex is also reunited with Zuba, who comprehends his son’s true nature with unabashed horror when Alex miserably fails his initiation test (he thinks it’s a dance-off, his opponent begs to differ). Mom (Sherri Shepherd) begs Zuba to accept Alex for who he is, but the old man is stubborn. Meanwhile, Marty – ignored in the midst of his erstwhile life partner’s drama – seeks solace among his own kind. In a strange biological twist, every other zebra on the reserve is Marty’s exact copy in voice, sex, and stripes. Marty, ever the femme, can’t stomach the idea of spending the rest of his life with someone as passive as an exact copy, so he behaves petulantly towards Alex in the hope of coaxing out the latter’s masculine, protective side.
The two end up back together in a romantic reconciliation scene that would’ve seemed perfectly at home in a Nora Ephron movie, and Zuba eventually accepts his son’s fabulous side (the climax will provide inspiration to stricken fathers of theater majors everywhere) though they never come right out, so to speak. DreamWorks Animation movies are still distributed by Paramount, and parent company Viacom isn’t looking to take any more hits to their stock price by foisting a couple of overtly gay cartoon animals onto a moviegoing public still jittery about Obama stealing their guns. The farthest directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath will go is allowing Gloria and Melman to hook up, because as the great DJ Qualls taught us, the skinny nerd is allowed to make it with the fat chick.
In other news, the penguins are back. They were the only thing that made the original worth watching, and their roles are beefed up significantly here. Cohen’s Julien continues to steal scenes, and Moto Moto, the buff hippo that courts Gloria, is basically “The Onion’s” Smoove B in river horse form.
But let’s not lose sight of what’s really been accomplished here. Alex and Marty – just like Batman and Robin, Fred and Barney, and Snagglepuss – are welcome additions to the gay animation pantheon. Who knows? If “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” is successful enough, could “Shrek 4: Back to Stonewall” be far behind?