Zebras: are they black with white stripes, or white with black stripes? Animated or not, with deep ponderings like this, what kid wouldn't want to sit through 90 minutes more of such philosophical fun?
In "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," an equally zany and peripatetic sequel, baby lion "Aleky" (a feisty, marvelous Ben Stiller) is taken by poachers, removed from the protected reserve where there's no hunting allowed and, together with his friends -- a hippo, a giraffe and a zebra -- winds up in Manhattan at the Central Park Zoo. On display, he's a big hit, drawing crowds to watch the adorable cub -- now, simply "Alex" -- ham it up and dance.
The character voices are superb: As Marty, the loyal friend and sensible zebra, Chris Rock is a forthright, cheery delight. Jada Pinkett Smith purrs and coos, charming everyone as a Rubenesque, demure hippo Gloria. As the shy, nervous Melman the giraffe, David Schwimmer is touchingly sensitive and endearing.
Tired of the spotlight and longing for home, the happy bunch plot their "return to the ancestral grid" and with help from some constantly fluttering distractions, including a platoon of mechanically gifted penguins and a hilariously persistent lemur (the fantastic Sacha Baron Cohen), escape to Africa.
Meanwhile, back on the reserve, Aleky's honorable father Zuba (a warm and soothing Bernie Mac, in one of his final roles) -- having given up on ever seeing his son again -- is battling for the family right to rule the jungle. His plotting, duplicitous rival, the deceptive Makunga (a deliciously evil Alec Baldwin), appoints himself king, but like many human rulers, is flummoxed by an actual governing problem; here, it's looming severe drought. And with the entire savannah dependent upon "alpha lion" Alex and his friends to save them, there's finally a storyline clear enough for the youngsters to understand and follow.
Interrupted by the occasional safari tourist and repeatedly by a snide, elderly woman who is far from grandmotherly, their escapades are at once frenetic and silly. The jokes, infrequent and far from amusing, are weak and incomprehensible to most of the audience. A few were downright insulting to certain sectors of the population or entire regions, with just enough gross-out scenes to make everyone wince. Really, how much spitting is considered funny before it becomes annoying?
At the preview showing, perhaps 90 percent of the children were between 2 and 6 years old. Keeping this in mind, one has to wonder at the choice of content. Along with the PG rating comes a warning of "some thematic elements." While not too visually specific, the scenes do include: live sacrifice to a volcano, nasty, rifle-armed hunters, the struggle for survival when stranded in an unfamiliar new environment, threatened extinction for an entire species, union-busting and blackmail.
What rescues some scenes from the ridiculous (and makes this bearable for those over age 10) is the music: everything from '80s disco to classic Boston tunes. The rest most definitely helps to distract from the meandering, mixed-up plot.
Once again, the Pixar animation is amazingly clear and realistic. Beyond that, the daring plane trip and adjustment to the continent are far from memorable and often downright grating. Heroic as the friendly foursome may seem, they're just not enough.
Pack the kids and escape to the multiplex; but let them miss this trip to Africa.