If ever there were a case to prove it's bad luck to share the secret you wish for while blowing out your birthday candles, this would be it. It all starts when Marty the Zebra (voice of Chris Rock), celebrating his tenth year of life, decides to ignore tradition- thanks to a little peer pressure.
Raised in captivity, the zesty Central Park Zoo resident can only dream about what it might have been like to be "born free." Yet when he tells his fellow inmates about his fantasy, they are horrified. The hypochondriac giraffe named Melman (David Schwimmer) can't believe anyone would willingly risk being so far a field from medical services. Gloria the hefty hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) flatly refuses to listen to such silly sentiments. His best friend, Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), is also dumfounded at the notion. King of the concrete jungle, he can't imagine any life better than the one of celebrity status they presently enjoy.
However, a foursome of psychotic penguins perfectly understands. Their plans to secretly tunnel out of the brick enclosure that holds them captive inspires the dichromatic Marty to take action. When Alex, Gloria and Melman discover their striped pal has escaped, they set off to find him and bring him back to safety.
Not surprisingly, the crowd of crazy creatures wandering the streets attracts attention -even in New York City. Surrounded and tranquilized, with their fate debated by animal activists, the group awakes inside wooden crates in route to an unknown destination. But if they think these events are the consequence of disregarding superstition, they are wrong. That doesn't befall them until after the boxes they are packed in accidentally fall overboard.
Washing ashore on a deserted beach (in what is later revealed to be Madagascar), Marty feels his heart's desire has been granted. The rest of the survivors suspect their new environment is a curse. No matter what their attitude, all of these mostly-domesticated beasts are now forced to face the realities of an untamed world.
As the urbanites stumble to get their bearings, so does the plot. Opening as a funny fish-out-of-water premise, the script now flounders in a sea of contradiction and aimlessness. On the one hand, it tries to explore what happens as Alex hears nature's call and begins to crater to his carnivorous instincts. On the other, it introduces a group of indigenous lemurs whose definition of wild behavior is techno-dancing and acting like party animals. (Sacha Baron Cohen and Cedric the Entertainer lend their voices to two of these characters.)
Just as out of step is the humor. Although the script is strong on one-liners, it is weak on story. Spending much of its time spoofing other films (Chariots of Fire, Planet of the Apes, Hawaii Five-O and American Beauty--just to name a few), it doesn't develop characters with enough strength to hold all the bits and pieces together. Many of the jokes (including the sexual innuendo and mild profanities) are aimed at entertaining an older audience, yet the slapstick shenanigans and simplicity of the tale makes it too juvenile for them. At the same time, young children may fear some of the survival-of-the-fittest comedy and the depiction of two human skeletons found among the wreckage of a plane.
Dreamworks' pedigree of hits, like the Shrek franchise, is likely to have fans hoping this computer animated movie will offer some of the same charm and comedic timing. Unfortunately, like Marty's birthday party, audiences may leave wishing for something better.