By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Aside from the title's geographic confusion — how do you escape to somewhere you already are? — Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa delivers what is expected from a sequel to a so-so animated hit, and occasionally is better.
DreamWorks didn't imagine that 2005's critter flick Madagascar would deserve a sequel, or else this movie would have been made first. Paying more attention to the original's happy accidents — especially Julien, the hyperactive lemur king, and a feisty Jewish bubbe — makes Escape 2 Africa faster and funnier.
The movie begins with a flashback to Alex the lion cub's childhood in Africa, with themes cribbed from The Lion King, including Hans Zimmer's music. Alex's wise father and pride leader, Makunga (voice of Alec Baldwin), faces competition from shifty Zuba (the late Bernie Mac). Hunters lure Alex into captivity, and fate takes him to New York, where Part One began.
By the first movie's end, Alex (Ben Stiller), his zebra buddy Marty (Chris Rock), hip hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) and hypochondriac Melman (David Schwimmer) accidentally migrated to Madagascar. Escape 2 Africa picks up their quest to return to New York in an antique airplane renovated by those crafty penguins and commandeered by Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen).
A crash landing on African plains leads to Alex's family reunion and Zuba's chance to usurp power. Meanwhile, Marty is losing his sense of individuality since every other zebra looks and sounds like him. Melman thinks he's dying again and wants to express his unnatural love for Gloria, who is being courted by a hunky, chunky hippo.
Forget the plot and enjoy the silly set pieces incorporating the animals' identifying characteristics. Alex's showmanship making him a Big Apple star is amusingly out of place in pride politics. The old lady Nana (Elisa Gabrielli) who clobbered Alex last time gets a return match or two. Rock's frantic jive-talking makes every line count, and hippo butts and commando penguins always earn laughs.
The audience is always there these days for an animated movie's opening weekend. It's what happens after the hype dies down that determines a cartoon's success. Escape 2 Africa will likely entertain more children more times on DVD than Ratatouille or Wall-E, and that's what really counts.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.