My Week in Cartoonland: Madagascar 2 and Bolt

Posted by Guest Author on Nov 23, 2008 in Animation |

Joe Strike reviews Madagascar 2 and Bolt

Editor’s Note: This week we’re lucky to have animation industry insider Joe Strike offers us his insights and first impressions of the films Madagascar 2 and Bolt.

My Week in Cartoonland

The week being November 3-7, which began in one jungle in Africa and wound up in another in the land of Nool, with a NY-Hollywood road trip connecting the two. Monday it was time for a Madagascar 2 screening, which was good since I had to review the co-directors the next day. Another hour and a half spent with a quartet of neurotic Central Park Zoo animals who didn’t bowl me over in the first place. (I live in Manhattan, have to deal with neurotic Manhattanites all the time, especially myself.)

Still, hippo Gloria has a lovely rotund twin-cheeked butt, which (like me) the movie can’t take its eyes off of – unlike jivey zebra Marty, who’s stuck with a flat-bottomed caboose. Giraffe Melman wins the ‘most annoying character’ award hands-down, but Ben Stiller aka leonine Alex once again takes home the ‘masochist of the year trophy’ – no matter what role this guy plays, human or animal, vegetable or mineral… he’s always getting the shit kicked out of him! If I want to see a lion get beat up, it’s got to be by a whip-wielding lioness in a leather harness and thigh-high leather boots… (What, you didn’t see that outtake on the Lion King III DVD?) Er, let’s move on…

How does one write a sequel to (to quote one observer) – a film with a huge cast of idiosyncratic characters that concluded on an open-ended note…how do you take them all to someplace new, both in terms of locale and their personal stories? How do you make sure your characters’ challenges affect each other and not go off in four separate directions? 

Yeah, how? And while you’re at it, how do you shoehorn three, count ‘em, three sets of scene-stealing sidekicks into the action at the same time? You got yer commando penguins here, yer lunatic lemur King Julien (and his entourage of sub-sidekicks) over there, and those erudite chimp partners Mason and Phil (who just discovered they can no longer get married in California) in the middle. Oh, I almost forgot the feisty old lady who beat up Alex in the first film who comes back to beat him up some more.

With all that to pack in, you don’t write a screenplay, you construct one. If you do it right all the separate pieces resolve into a cohesive unity like a fine watch, or a Tetris game. If you do it wrong, the pieces stick out every which way with plenty of useless gaps trapped between them. I used to like playing Tetris, then I got bored with it.

If only I could watch the sidekicks and forget about the stars. Oh wait a second; DreamWorks knows when they have a good thing going and –hopefully not driving it into the ground – and is cooking up a Penguins/Lemur Nickelodeon series coming up in ’09. They’re all somehow back in the Central Park zoo (I guess it’s a parallel universe, and I bet you won’t see much if any of the movie’s starring foursome.) Sacha Baron Borat’s Julien, the funniest furry in both films (best line in 2, as he sets a particularly screwy scheme in motion: “Quickly, before we all come to our senses!”) will be voiced by someone else in the series; let’s hope his ringer does as good as Dan Castellaneta did as the genie in the TV version of Disney’s Aladdin.

Next Up: Bolt

Midweek it was Bolt time. Tell the truth, I liked the film far more than I thought I would. I mean, c’mon: an entire hyper 007-to-the-nth-degree action sequence being filmed in real time for a TV show, played out across an entire cityscape all to convince a dog it’s happening for real? When they reveal early on it’s all been staged, Truman Show-style to get an Emmy-winning performance out of the dog, more than a few people in the audience will be bummed out the entire film won’t be Super-Bolt – even though it was spelled out in the film’s trailer.) 

Then they show the next action sequence being staged without Bolt’s knowledge by special effects people hidden every whichwhere. The idea’s still preposterous, but now at least it’s believable within the film’s context; to quote a favorite family anecdote, ‘you bought the talking mouse?’ (E-mail me and I’ll tell the whole story.)

Travolta’s voice work was adequate, if lacking that extra dollop of commitment that would make me fully invest in him emotionally. Susie Essman as skanky alley cat Mittens comes through on that score. She and Bolt team up in that classic Hollywood, meet-cute, enemies-at-first-sight-until-they ultimately-realize-how-much-they-mean-to/need-each-other style; it’s later on, when she’s trying to teach Bolt how the real world works – and inadvertently reveals the painful source of her cynicism – that you suddenly understand and feel for her. A great moment screenplay- and performance-wise.

The lunatic, delusional hamster Rhino (voiced by a supposedly equally lunatic Disney animator) steals the movie of course. It probably wasn’t intentional on the filmmakers’ part (or was it?), but – you heard it here first – his spending 90% of his time inside a hamster ball looks like a shout-out to Travolta’s 1970’s TV movie ‘The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.’

Finally Friday it was time for a free ride to Blue Sky Studios north of NYC, the East Coast’s only full fledged CGI feature studio. (Once upon a time –we’re talking early 1980s – it was ‘Magi-Synthavision,’ and they specialized in shiny 3D letters tumbling all over the place, not to mention a lot of still-looks-way-cool animation for Tron. (Strong production design will always carry weak animation, but never vice versa.)

The event was a mini-junket for the DVD/Blu-ray release of Horton Hears a Who – and excuse me if I’m wrong, but it seems like 20th C-Fox, Blue Sky’s corporate master is sinking more money into the DVD release than they did for the theatrical – a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade does not come cheap. Reading between the lines, don’t be surprised if Fox/Blue Sky announces another Seuss jobbie down the road, maybe even sooner rather than later. (Someone at the event mentioned The Lorax, but it wasn’t me.)

Joe is an occasional animation scripter and freelance NYC writer covering animation and sci-fi/fantasy entertainment. His work has appeared in the NY Daily News, Newsday, the New York Press and, as they used to say on Rocky and Bullwinkle, ‘a host of others.’ He is a regular contributor to the animation industry website awn.com, but it’s much easier to visit joestrike.com to see what he’s been up to lately.

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