TAMPA — There's a fantastically subversive moment in the first Madagascar 'toon when Alex the lion — an escaped New York zoo critter freaked out by his newfound freedom — gets zapped with a tranquilizer dart. He immediately spins into a hallucination soundtracked by Sammy Davis Jr.'s Candy Man. The kids might not get the gag, but man, this parent sure did.
But alas, the new Madagascar Live! Operation: Vacation show at Busch Gardens — like the Sesame Street partnership, another move to bring in a hot franchise to compete with the Mouse House — is aimed almost entirely at the young'uns and their unbridled need to squirm and shout. The juniors will love the 20-minute set; me, I wanted more funny animals, less annoying humans.
Most of the characters are present, including Alex, Gloria the hippo, King Julien the lemur, the bossy penguins. Melman the giraffe and Marty the zebra are "back in New York" (bummer). Perhaps as a result of the well-detailed if lumbering costumes, the renovated Stanleyville Theater (which looks great) is also equipped with a retractable stage bestowing singing, dancing, grinning Up With People kids, all fist pumps and white teeth. I kept waiting — or hoping — for the lion to eat one of them.
Busch Gardens and Dreamworks partnered for the show, but the happy-happy theme-park obviously overruled the sly animation company. Maybe the giraffe and the zebra were too hard to bring to life, but they were also the most irreverent characters in the trilogy. Without Chris Rock's Marty, we're robbed of 960 people chanting along to "Afro circus! Afro circus! Polka dot polka dot polka dot Afro!"
Instead, the chipper humans onstage lead the crowd in an assortment of milquetoast pop, which lazily drives a loose plot about the penguins and their pals crash-landing in Busch Gardens. The animal gang needs help cutting loose. So cue cuts involving "Do the Hippopotamus!" and "Gonna party like an animal!" with Alex the lion air-guitaring along. Eventually, King Julien shakes his striped tail to I Like to Move It, and the crowd does the same.
Oh, maybe I'm being a curmudgeon. The kids, including my two daughters, flipped for the whole thing, especially a finale that features bubbles. Plus it's going to be an air-conditioned godsend for overheated parents. (The Stanleyville Theater used to be open-air. Now it's enclosed and sparkly with a jungle motif and a great light and sound system.) But me? I was hoping for some Candy Man. And, at times, a tranquilizer dart.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.