Time for me to dig out my list of “Reasons Why the World Deserves to End in 2012” and amend the entry, “Because there are new installments of both ‘Ice Age’ and ‘Madagascar.’” The third time, despite what you’ve heard, is rarely the charm, but “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” marks the spot where a shrill and unfunny kid franchise made the leap into hilarious and engaging family entertainment.
Part of that transition may have to do with the addition of co-writer Noah Baumbach, best known for indies like “Greenberg” (starring Ben Stiller, who voices lion Alex here) and “Margot at the Wedding,” but who made his bones in the animation world by collaborating with Wes Anderson on their charming adaptation of “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
Whatever the reason, “Madagascar 3” finds the franchise finally finding its comedic groove, mixing character-based comedy, outrageous adventures and the occasional bit of parent-friendly wordplay.
We last left our heroes — Alex, zebra Marty (Chris Rock), hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) and giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) — living the high life on the African veldt. Like all transplanted New Yorkers, however, they all kvetch about missing the Big Apple and decide to make their way back to the Central Park Zoo they successfully escaped two movies ago. This involves snorkeling to Monaco (don’t ask) to reunite with the penguins and chimps who can fly an airplane (no, really, don’t ask).
Their stint in Monte Carlo draws the attention of ruthless animal control cop Captain Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand, summoning all the Gallic hauteur she can muster), who would like nothing more than to add Alex’s head to the menagerie of stuffed trophies on her wall. Pursued by DuBois, the animals join up with a down-on-its-luck circus, pretending to be performers themselves so that they can hop the train and get out of the country.
The circus’ fortunes declined when knife-throwing tiger Vitaly (Bryan Cranston) lost his mojo, but leopard Gia (Jessica Chastain) thinks these Americans can put their three-ring show back on top. Not that the plot — how will the circus animals react when they find out their new compadres are mere zoo attractions? — matters much; directors Eric Darnell (who co-wrote) and Tom McGrath use the circus setting as a springboard for eye-popping 3D visuals (there’s a trapeze sequence that’s as trippy as anything since the “Pink Elephants on Parade” number in “Dumbo”) and some genuinely funny character interactions.
The returning players all seem to be more on their game: Stiller’s less of a whiner, Rock tones it down a notch or two (but still rattles off a circus theme song that’s still stuck in my head) and it turns out that Schwimmer’s voice sounds more natural coming out of the mouth of a neurotic giraffe than it does coming out of Schwimmer himself. Of the new additions, Cranston, Chastain and Martin Short (as a dopey but friendly performing seal) all score, but McDormand steals her every scene. It helps that the hyper-capable DuBois nonetheless becomes the object of lots of wonderfully slapstick Inspector Clouseau–esque abuse.
If the previous “Madagascar” entries left you cold, take the plunge with this threequel. You will believe a hippopotamus can tight-rope dance.