By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
In the third movie the Madagascar gang joins a circus, and while the result isn't the greatest show on Earth, it certainly is a lot of fun.
Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted is packed with silliness and festooned with 3-D effects worth the surcharge for a change. This is likely the best entertainment that children will find at the movies this summer, and that grownups can enjoy just as easily.
Once again, Alex the lion (voice of Ben Stiller) is pining to return to his Central Park Zoo celebrity, after tracing his roots through Africa in Part II. His sidekicks Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) and the interspecies married couple Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) are ready to go, except those darned penguins flew their airplane to Monte Carlo for a weekend of cheating the roulette tables.
That scam leads to pursuit by a terrific villain, animal control Capt. Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand), who desires Alex's head on her absurd wall of trophies. DuBois tracks prey like a bloodhound, won't allow anything to stop her, and tosses in a bit of Edith Piaf for good measure. She's the bad element the franchise has lacked, contrasting with the perpetual niceness of Alex and his friends.
One ridiculous thing leads to another and the menagerie hitches a ride on a circus train, against the wishes of Vitaly the tiger (Bryan Cranston), who doubts that these critters are big-top material. A sleek leopard named Gia (Jessica Chastain) believes Alex's yarns about incredible circus feats that eventually come true in a dazzling Cirque du Soleil-inspired climax that I immediately wanted to see again.
Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted uses this threadbare plot as an excuse for more high jinks by characters who haven't grown tiresome. The central quartet — except for Rock's rat-a-tat wisecracks — is constantly upstaged by sideshow critters: the intrepid penguins dealing with everything like it's D-Day, the irrepressible lemur King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Martin Short as the exuberant sea lion Stefano.
This isn't genre-changing material; the DreamWorks pranksters will leave that stuff to Pixar. Neither does it feel forced for profit like the Ice Age series that, incredibly, won't die. The Madagascar franchise is purely goofy amusement, and its modesty is becoming after splashier, higher-minded competition. You don't expect perfection and you don't get it. But you do get more laughs than any other animated series out there.
And parents, get ready to have Rock's voice (or your kids' imitating him) jammed in your head all summer. His "circus-Afro-polka dot" ditty set to the classic circus theme song is an immediate earworm, especially mashed with Will.i.am's version of I Like to Move It from the second film. It's a brisk moment that fondly lingers, like many frantic pleasures of Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.