It's been a decade since the success of Toy Story sparked a boom in computer animation. Achievements we were supposed to marvel at in a film as recent as 2002's Ice Age - the pixellated realism of such elements as fur and water, for example - are now taken for granted. Computer animated features are now churned out, one per school holiday; even we Brits got in on the action with the patchy Valiant. Now we're on sequels: Toy Story spawned Toy Story 2, just as Shrek was later to result in Shrek 2. These films are, in short, no longer the unique creations they might once have been; the rapid development of technology and the concurrent acceleration of commercial interests means it's not overstating the case by much [except it is - Ed.] to say the gap between watching Toy Story upon its first run in 1996 and the new release Madagascar is comparable to the difference between seeing The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and being at the first public screening of Weekend at Bernie's II 78 years later.
Which is not necessarily to do down Madagascar, in many ways a superior film to its DreamWorks predecessor Shark Tale; it is, instead, to acknowledge just how fast this particular process has become industrialised in a relatively short space of time. What we have here is the tale of a group of animals in the Central Park Zoo who end up lost in the wilderness with a desperate need to find their way back. Marty, an inquisitive zebra with the voice of Chris Rock, along with best friend Alex, a prideful lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), sassy hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) and hypochondriac Jewish giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) break out of their enclosures and soon find themselves on what is perhaps the island of the title. (The script doesn't appear to mention it; Melman, for one, thinks they've landed in San Diego.)
It's an appealingly zingy, if slim, half-term entertainment, paring back some of the clutter of Shark Tale - clutter that served, in the end, to half-mask a thin storyline - in favour of visuals that frequently pop out at the camera. The pastiches of other movies that irked some viewers of the earlier film remain, signalled rather lazily by leading music cues ("Born Free", Vangelis's score for Chariots of Fire, Thomas Newman's American Beauty theme). But they're backed up by artistry beyond Shark Tale's conceit of putting Angelina Jolie's lips on a fish: the computer-generated recreation of Manhattan, with a cop on horseback wondering whether he should shoot the zebra who's just wandered into Times Square, is especially fun.
Characterisation is unspectacular but solid; even Schwimmer, whose neurotic schtick was no more than PG- or 12-rated on Friends, has to tone down his act, but the voice artists generally cope well with the jokes, as you'd expect from sometime stand-ups Stiller and Rock. (Having endured it the first time round, I could have done without Sacha Baron Cohen's rendition of "I Like To Move It (Move It)" by Reel 2 Real featuring the Mad Stuntman, but the kids in the screening seemed to enjoy it.) As is increasingly the case in this type of holiday-filler, it's the throwaway gags (such as a giraffe having an MRI scan) and minor characters you come away remembering, but that's the experience of the zoo, where you're supposed to marvel at such lords of the jungle as the lion or giraffe, but instead gravitate towards the monkeys and penguins, creatures chiefly notable for flinging poop and falling over. And not that the kids will get it, Madagascar also has a very funny Tom Wolfe joke.
Madagascar is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment.