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Something Tame

Madagascar fails to captivate.

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There’s a dog-eat-dog rivalry between computer animation filmmakers Pixar and DreamWorks. In their decade-long grudge match, each studio has honed its own natural defenses.
With the Toy Story movies and The Incredibles, Pixar mines witty premises for rich characters. DreamWorks, with the Shrek series and its latest effort, Madagascar, depends on fame and familiarity.
DreamWorks casts more famous actors for voices, such as Ben Stiller and Chris Rock in Madagascar. The settings spoof famous places, like Shrek’s Disney World and Hollywood or Madagascar’s Manhattan. And the humor relies, at times exclusively, on jokes about famous films and other pop-culture milestones. Antz and Shark Tale offered animal-based parodies of, respectively, Woody Allen and modern Mafia movies.
Short-term, DreamWorks takes the safer route. No one will miss Madagascar’s gags about “New York, New York” or TV theme songs. But since computer animation takes forever to finish, time-sensitive jokes expire by the time they reach the multiplex. Though brand-new, Madagascar feels stale, and its most clever ideas play second banana to tired, TV-friendly shtick.
Stiller’s Alex the Lion is a celebrity. He’s the mobbed main attraction of the Central Park Zoo. Raised in captivity, Alex loves zoo life, though his best friend, Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), yearns to taste freedom. Marty uncovers a chance to break out via a commando squad of penguins who steal Madagascar’s every scene (but prove just a shadow of Finding Nemo’s escape-oriented aquarium fish).
Joined by a sassy hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and a hypochondriac giraffe (David Schwimmer), Alex and Marty wander loose in New York, then get shipped overseas and finally shipwrecked off Africa’s coast, on the island of Madagascar.
Freed from predictable comedy about Manhattan life, Madagascar begins to catch fire in the wild. The computer-animated jungle blazes with candy colors, especially when its lemur population throws a rave, led by none-too-bright King Julian. Sacha Baron Cohen — better known by his alter ego, faux hip-hop prankster Ali G — gives Julian a honeyed Afro-Caribbean patois and an amusing self-importance.
Next to Cohen, Schwimmer provides the funniest voicework with the giraffe’s adenoidal complaints and jungle hissy fits: “Nature! It’s all over me! Get it off!” Stiller makes Alex cluelessly enthusiastic but never provides a memorable performance. Any comic or actor with a prime-time sitcom could have fared as well. Rock’s gift for savage, sarcastic ire finds no outlet in Marty. The film comes closest to a racial acknowledgment when the zebra wonders if he’s black with white strips or vice versa.
The script dances around a joke about domesticated beasts struggling to adjust to their original habitat, not unlike pampered celebrities trying to fend for themselves free of handlers. But Madagascar never exploits the setup, since Marty and company prove as resourceful as the cast of Gilligan’s Island, which makes no sense in or out of context.
But when Alex becomes increasingly ravenous, Madagascar finally finds a hook. Raised on hand-delivered pre-sliced steaks, Alex associates his best pal as potential prey for the first time. The script finally finds a premise to sink its fangs into: Alex hallucinates that his friends are talking T-bones and sees his claws pop uncontrollably, like he’s a leonine Jekyll and Hyde.
Madagascar’s best pop jokes spring from the situation, like the recurring use of the Born Free theme or Alex dreaming of meat falling like the rose petals in American Beauty’s fantasies. Movies overuse Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” but it suits an ironic montage of the zoo animals aghast at the violence in the circle of life.
Yet Alex’s kill-or-starve dilemma never pays off any more than Madagascar’s tension between cushy urban life and unfettered rural life. Until DreamWorks’ films begin showing some teeth, the studio will continue to occupy a lower rung on the computer-animated food chain.

Curt Holman



Though the 2005 Cannes Film Festival just ended a couple of weeks ago, non-Hollywood-studio flicks move slow across the continent. So this week affords Memphis audiences a chance to catch up with some of the big winners from the 2004 Cannes fest.
Then-14-year-old Yuya Yagira won best actor at Cannes a year ago for his unforgettable portrayal of the eldest of four siblings abandoned by their mother in a Tokyo apartment in director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s entrancing Nobody Knows. You’ve got a chance to see why because the film screens at Malco’s Highland Quartet this week. (Another Cannes 2004 winner, French director Agnes Jaoui’s ensemble comedy Look at Me, is playing at Studio on the Square.)
Based on a true story that scandalized Japan, Nobody Knows is a more realistic, more serious, more wondrous, and much more terrible take on the Home Alone conceit. Instead of a child accidentally left home by a vacationing family, Nobody Knows tracks the daily survival of four children intentionally abandoned by their single mother.
The film opens with the mother, Keiko, and her son Akira (Yagira) introducing themselves to a new landlord, who is wary of children. Keiko assures him that it is only the two of them moving in and that Akira, age 12, is quiet.
As the movers finish unloading and Keiko and Akira are left alone in their apartment, the camera focuses on a couple of heavy suitcases the mother and son have lugged upstairs. Bathed in sunlight, the pink suitcase begins to wobble. Keiko has smuggled her youngest children, Shigeri, roughly 7, and Yuki, 4, into the apartment as stowaways. Ten-year-old Kyoko sneaks up later, in the dark of night. Then Keiko goes over the rules: no laughing or loud noise. Only Akira is allowed to go outside.
Keiko leaves the children alone in the apartment, sometimes for a night, sometimes for longer, sometimes for as much as a month. She claims to be gone on work-related travel, but the audience, not to mention Akira, suspects otherwise. She comes home laughing, sometimes smelling of booze.
The kids grow accustomed to this situation: You see them unpacking, setting up house in the new apartment. The older kids settle into their responsibilities, especially Akira, who makes dinner and sees that the younger kids get baths.
But then Keiko leaves for what Akira comes to sense is forever, and the kids’ hold on their civilization understandably begins to crumble. This isn’t Lord of the Flies. The kids don’t turn ugly, they just turn into kids, and order dissolves into a form of chaos: The ledger Akira used to keep track of expenditures is dotted with stickers and doodles. He dips into the arcade he’s always passed on the way home from the grocery store. He makes friends that he invites to play video games in the parentless paradise of the family apartment.
Dishes and trash pile up. Money runs out. Utilities are cut off. But the kids’ survival instincts keep them going. They collect water from the public park and get leftover food from a cashier at the neighborhood convenience store. Keiko doesn’t return, and the neighbors don’t register what’s happening.
Kore-eda shot Nobody Knows over more than a year, so we see the growth of the children. (Yagira’s voice even changes.) Similarly, this nearly two-and-a-half-hour film is marked by patient, deliberate pacing. Unlike what would surely happen in a Hollywood take on the same material, there is no manufactured tension. The slow dissolution of the kids’ world is bad enough.
There are terrible moments: Akira waking to find his younger brother eating paper. Akira calling a number where his mother may be, feeding his last precious coins into the pay phone to keep the line open, only to run out before she picks up. But there is also glory in the intimate, unforced manner in which these kids build their world around each other.
Nobody Knows is less sentimental than most foreign imports that focus on children. It doesn’t work overtime to provoke your tears. It doesn’t have to. It moves gradually, inexorably, from wonder to unbearable sadness.  —

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