"Madagascar," the 2005 animated film that brought us pampered zoo critters Alex the lion, Marty the zebra, Melman the paranoid hypochondriac giraffe and Gloria the hippo (and the penguins, don't forget those crafty penguins) pulled in about half a billion dollars at the box office. The sequel, "Madagascar: Back 2 Africa," is a better film, though -- less manic, more easygoing.
The first movie referenced so many other movies so indiscriminately, from "Chariots of Fire" to "Planet of the Apes" to "American Beauty," watching it was like being caught on a bus with a bunch of screenwriters on the way to a wisenheimer convention. The new one lays off that stuff, comparatively, and while there are booger jokes and such, you'll likely avoid that "Over the Hedge" headache so many of these critter outings instill.
Marooned on Madagascar, Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty (Chris Rock), Melman (David Schwimmer) and Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) yearn for home in the Central Park Zoo, where starry-eyed, egocentric Alex's antics have made him "king of New York." The penguins rig up an old, busted plane, slingshot fashion, and zing the quartet (plus stowaways) not to Manhattan, but to Africa, somewhere near Mt. Kilimanjaro.
From there, "Back 2 Africa" begins a serious poaching session on "Lion King" territory. Alex finds his parents -- the late Bernie Mac provides the voice of daddy Zuba, big mane on campus -- and with obvious allusions to Scar in "The Lion King," Alec Baldwin lends his sterling basso distrusto voice to jealous Makunga, a petty and venal lion indeed, who exploits naive, showbizzy Alex for his own political gain.
When I say "Back 2 Africa" goes easy on the pop culture jokes, I should clarify: One of the smarter things in the script is how Alex, who digs his Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins dance moves, becomes the film's primary pop-cult gag. (When he suits up for ceremonial battle, a fight he doesn't realize will involve actual fighting, his war paint includes a dandy pair of tragic/comic masks.) This allows the rest of the movie to spread out and ease up in other ways, exploring other avenues.
And, naturally, most of the elements that made "Madagascar" all those millions are back, including lemur leader King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen with a wittily un-peggable dialect), and the song -- the song -- "I Like to Move It."
Screenwriter-directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath were joined this time by co-writer Etan Cohen. The visual style is typical, ultra-crisp computer animation, bright, sharp, somewhat clinical.
I took my kid and three of his pals to an Imax screening, and while I could've done without the film's martial arts slapstick involving the cranky old outer-borough lady on safari, in a role expanded from her Grand Central Station cameo in the first picture, well, if there's one thing parenthood teaches anybody in this country, it's that boys rarely fail to laugh at someone gettin' it in the 'nads from a senior citizen.
Reviews from our second-grade posse: "Really liked it." "Four million stars." "Five million stars."
'Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa'
MPAA rating: PG for some mild crude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: In general release