It's been three years since the first Madagascar - a middling but enjoyable entry in the recent wave of computer animation - and tardy-seeming sequel Escape 2 Africa struggles to get going. A clumsily handled prologue - set before the events of the first film, though it's not immediately apparent - depicts the circumstances whereby young Alex, the theatrical lion voiced by Ben Stiller, arrived in the Manhattan zoo, and for a terrible moment, it looks like the film will be following the Muppet Babies route, replacing the characters established in the course of the original with younger versions better placed to appeal to the target demographic. Fear not: soon we're back with the grown-ups, as they attempt to fly back to New York from the island on which they washed up in film one, only to make a crash-landing (a zippy set-piece, the visual highlight of the film) in Africa.
"It's like Roots!," exclaims Marty, the streetwise zebra voiced, again, by Chris Rock. Actually, Escape 2 Africa is more like a postmodern Lion King - a story template studio DreamWorks had already borrowed from Disney for their now long-forgotten, unloved and sequelless Barnyard - with Alex trying to defend his father from a pompidoured rival (Alec Baldwin, growling anonymously) who's trying to assume control of the pack. The others are rather sidelined, where the original had a funky ensemble vibe. Marty raises a zebra army who look and sound alike (with the vocal cast extended to Cedric the Entertainer and the late Bernie Mac, the film can afford to be savvier about attributing such characteristics as race to its animals); nervy giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) becomes a witch doctor (a perfunctory conceit that goes nowhere); while single hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) goes Sex and the City with all the grace of a hippo in Manolos, ensconcing herself at a nearby watering hole and finding her own Mr. Big.
While the storytelling has fragmented, the referencing has become even more profligate, with nods to West Side Story and the Twilight Zone movie that I refuse to believe anyone in the target audience is going to get. Familiarity also hasn't helped the main characters: for all their angularity of design, and the alt-comedy cred Stiller, Rock and the returning Sacha Baron Cohen bring to their voiceroles, Melman, Marty and co. turn out to be not so very far from those talking plush toys evident in Disney's two-dimensional animation. Again, the biggest laughs come as throwaway flourishes: a meerkat singing "Private Dancer", or the penguins - this franchise's funniest joke, and a sign of how Aardman has come to influence American animation - who prove funnier still relocated to the African plains, and forced to negotiate with monkeys. If Escape 2 Africa puts money enough in the bank to justify a Madagascar 3 - and in a year where even the deeply mediocre Igor coined a decent booty, that's almost a given - they should ditch the livestock, and give the little guys their own film.
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment; a sequel, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, opens this Friday.