Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

The animated sequel is something that’s hard to pull off owing to the law of diminishing returns. Each subsequent entry in a franchise seems to scramble for a new hook or new way of breathing life into its core set of characters. Not all of them can pull this off. Whilst Toy Story successfully spawned two sequels (although I think the original is by far the best), other franchises, such as Cars, have produced very lacklustre sequels that were thin on ideas. This year we’ve seen two of the “B-list” animated franchises: Ice Age and now Madagascar. Whilst I really enjoyed Ice Age: Continental Drift (so did the box office), others lambasted it for being so thin on character and featuring another nonsensical plot. So how does Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted stack up in comparison?

For those unfamiliar with the series so far, it follows a collection of animals on their wild adventures. There’s Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), as well as a couple of other oddballs including a battalion of penguins and an eccentric lemur called King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen). In the past we’ve seen them find a way to get out of a New York zoo and wind up in Madagascar. They then decided they didn’t like it there so tried to fly back home, but got dumped in mainland Africa. And now we see them once again trying to get back to New York, but by way of Europe by serendipitously joining the circus to evade the clutches of Captain Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand). She’s a bit like Ace Ventura pet detective, but way less likeable, wears less amazing clothes and generally likes to kill her captured animals. OK, so not like Ace… this comparison doesn’t fit… like a glove.

Yep, all pretty regular behaviour…

So there you have it, the typical eccentric plot of a threequel, but how does it fair? Surprisingly well, I must say. It seems like the writers have thrown caution to the wind and embraced every wild idea they could come up with on their late night benders. You want Chris Rock singing an incredibly annoying song about polka dots and afros? You got it! You want a giraffe and a hippo to fall in love and do the tightrope together? You got it! You want a lemur to fall in love with a grizzly bear that rides around on a children’s tricycle? You got it! Yes, the ideas are bombastic and absurd, but they work beautifully in the context of the film.

Now, for me, the biggest thing that I dislike about a film starring Chris Rock is Chris Rock. I just don’t get his humour – it really grates on me. People tell me he’s the “new Eddie Murphy” – but I like Eddie Murphy; that guy has charisma and is genuinely funny. I can’t say the same for Rock, especially in his stand-up. However, all of his utterances that caused me to squirm in my seat are already in the trailer; thus eliminating his annoyances from the film itself as I’d already seen them / heard his schtick. With that said, all of the cast are great – but as ever, this is just voice acting… it’s pretty hard to commend someone for “great acting abilities” if all they’re doing is reading lines. It is funny how this is Ben Stiller‘s best work in quite some time though. I really hope that guy catches a break soon so he can be acting in genuinely funny films again. I just hope the Adam Sandler effect hasn’t enveloped him yet.

What makes the film so fun is the characterisation and therefore the humour. All of the animals’ personalities are conveyed so well on screen owing to the writing and choice of accents / actors. Although once again it’s probably Sacha Baron Cohen that steals the most laughs with his always-eccentric Julian and absurdly Robin Williams-esque accent. His character’s romance with Sonya the grizzly bear is both humourous and at times quite touching (once you get through the absurdity of a tutu-ed bear on a tricycle). Also, mention has to go to the visuals. I’ve never thought of the Madagascar series as being mind-blowingly beautiful but there are some spectacular scenes in there that just look fantastic.

If I’m honest, I found the film as humourous as Ice Age: Continental Drift, but without the “slow” moments. Madagascar 3 doesn’t know where the brake pedal is and hurtles along at a rapid pace. This therefore eliminates the weaknesses I saw in Ice Age: Continental Drift – the slow romance scenes with the young mammoths. Therefore kudos must be given for the pacing of this film, which makes it even more suitable for the youngsters in the audience. In a year that’s seen so many “mature” animated films, it’s great to see something that is aimed at the kids, as opposed to aiming at the adults. Sure, there are laughs to be had for us more mature folks, but it’s not expressly for us. And that’s what makes it a great watch.

With Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted I think you know what you’re getting yourself in for when you purchase the ticket… it’s about talking animals. And it ably delivers on its aims of entertainment. Whilst it’s by no means going to catapult the franchise into the upper echelons and make it as note-worthy as Toy Story, it’s definitely injected fresh life into the premise. I just wonder where they’ll go from here…

And who doesn’t like some wild speculation on that fact? I don’t think they’ll go the totally bonkers route that Ice Age has pursued… but who knows. I’m sure the writing team have read the reviews praising their off-the-wall humour, so maybe we will? Aliens? Dinosaurs? Space? Who knows where we’ll be heading next!

Phage Factor:

3.5 Star

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Sinister (2012)

I’ll be the first to admit I’ve never been a fan of Anchorman and all of its sayings that some fans will spit back at you ad-verbatim like it’s still a fresh and exciting movie, and not something that’s now eight years old. But one quote, or scene, does stick with me – and that’s the one in which Steve Carell‘s character just exclaims “LOUD NOISES!” as his contribution to an argument. It was funny. It was apt. So why am I bringing this up in a review that’s not for The Campaign? Well, because I don’t think there’s any other phrase, spare “LOUD NOISES!” that really sums up horror movies of the past five years. Does Sinister follow this well trod path, or is it something altogether more… sinister?

The set up for the film is that true crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves his family to a new town so that he can write his new book about some grizzly murders that happened there: a quadruple hanging. Of course, Ellison decides to move the family into the exact house where the hangings happened (unbeknown to his family) so that he can draw inspiration from the surroundings and maybe uncover a thing or two about the unsolved murders. But Ellison uncovers a box of film in the attic that explicitly details a series of brutal murders all featuring a rather evil looking presence. Obviously, I can’t divulge much more, but that’s the premise. But is it any good?

Well, it’s a mixed bag. I also can’t help but feel that Sinister and Insidious have more in common than a single word title. Let me make this clear: I thought Insidious was an OK horror movie that had a solid narrative… for the first 2/3 of the film. That last act was appalling and looked like it was shot in a high school drama class. Honestly – the “make up” on the “big bad red faced demon” was abysmal. That whole ending left a sour taste in my mouth. But the main problem with Insidious and Sinister is their reliance on the aforementioned LOUD NOISES! The films rarely employ true terror or fear. The vast majority of the jumps come from cheap amplified noises. This isn’t horror. This is just making people jump. I could pop a balloon behind you right now and you’d jump. It’s not horror or terror – it’s surprise. This is why I can’t really say that Sinister distinguishes itself from the pack. It’s more of the same.

Ethan Hawke is fantastic here… even if he does look like Johnny “Drama” Chase…

I will however say that the plot, whilst supernatural and a little forced, works well. I enjoyed the general premise of the film as a whole and I really must commend Ethan Hawke here. He seamlessly holds the film together and really slogs it out on-screen. It’s refreshing to have a horror movie that’s genuinely well acted by its lead protagonist. One thing I’ve got to mention though… since when did Johnny “Drama” Chase from HBO’s Entourage (RIP) start acting in films? In the trailers I swore that Ethan Hawke was Kevin Dillon – they look almost identical. I was half expecting to see Turtle and E run on-screen and make the film into a total Bromance (yes, I loved Entourage, and can’t let go of it). But getting back on track: Hawke is brilliant. That’s not to say the rest of the cast are slouches, but they never stood out in the same way. James Ransone‘s Deputy was the comic relief and Juliet Rylance ably portrayed Hawke‘s wife, Tracy, but the children? Eh… less noteworthy. They’re no Pierce Gagnon, that’s for sure. Can’t we cast him in all films from now on? And cast Tom Hardy in there too? I’d pay.

If you shhh it makes the LOUD NOISES even LOUDER!!

Whilst I wouldn’t say I was disappointed by Sinister, I almost knew what I was going to get from the outset. As soon as I see all of these “terrifying”, “you won’t sleep at night” and “best horror of the decade” quotes I’m immediately suspicious. Especially when they come from small-time horror film sites about as big as Film Phage – hey, it’s true, we’re small time  here (for now…). I just feel that either the standards for horror are slipping, or that people have forgotten what it’s like to be truly terrified by a film. Maybe I’m just hard to scare in that regard, but I didn’t feel tense or have an feeling of horror for the entire runtime. It was just interesting. I still say that nothing has come close to capturing the nuanced horror of Rec or even The Ring upon first viewing in a darkened cinema. There’s just too much emphasis on cheap jumps as opposed to psychologically terrifying someone. Although it’s lambasted, you’ve got to credit the original Paranormal Activity for at least trying this and making people doubt their own eyesight. A clever innovation. A clever innovation that will not be found in Sinister, despite Hawke‘s best efforts.

The only thing truly sinister about Sinister is how they managed to amass so many positive quotes from fellow critics that made the film seem the equivalent of a live-action ritual sacrifice with demons emerging from the lacerated corpse. Instead what we have is a film with a solid plot and a dodgy sound system that spikes way too often.

I’ll say one thing: Sinister beats out The Possession as best horror film I’ve seen in the past few weeks, but considering that’s its only competition that’s not saying much. With only Paranormal Activity 4 and perhaps Silent Hill: Revelations still to go, it could be another very unscary Halloween. LOUD NOISES!!!

Phage Factor:

The Lorax (2012)

You know it’s summer when Hollywood unleashes a relentless assault of animated features to enthral the kids and hopefully entertain their accompanying parents during the school holidays, and this year is no exception. Up next in the blitzkrieg is the extravagantly colourful world of The Lorax, based on Dr Seuss’ story of the same name. But does this old yarn-turned-film both bedazzle and amuse, or is it simply a children’s tale set to bewilder and bemuse? Read on dear reader for I shall wage, that the truth is to be found here on Film Phage…

The Lorax (ably voiced by Danny DeVito) for the uninitiated is a story by Dr Seuss essentially telling the tale of the environment vs. corporate greed. I won’t go into the intricacies of the “plot”, but it’s suffice to say that the film tells of how one man (the Once-ler, voiced by Ed Helms from The Hangover) tells a young boy his tale of how his lust for profits rid the world of vegetation and how he didn’t listen to The Lorax: the guardian of the trees. He then entrusts the final seed in existence to this young boy for him to do with as he wishes. If this sounds a bit hokey, then that’s simply because it is. Seuss’ original story is incredibly short and is a bit like a parable; ending on the cliffhanger of “will he or won’t he”. But this is a children’s movie, not the infuriating ending to Inception, so expect no ambiguities… in fact, don’t expect much at all.

What you can expect are modern-day animation staples such as beautiful rendering, celebrity voices and a paper-thin romance. It’s the latter that really undermines the ethos of the film, with Ted (Zac Efron) wanting to find the tree to get in there with his crush Audrey (Taylor Swift). Seuss’ original vision is somewhat bastardised here, as this kid doesn’t really give two Humming-fish about the environment – he’s fulfilling his basic human urges… to get a smooch! C’mon, he’s probably 10, he’s not looking for some hanky panky with a 13 year old girl. Well, that might be the norm in certain districts in a town or city you know, but I’m certain that’s not the case here.

But that’s not all the film does to betray Seuss’ original vision… oh no no… if you live in the US you’ll be fully aware of this advert on your TV, and if you’re not from the US, then watch this bearing in mind that this is a pro-environment, anti-corporation film:

Yes indeedy – the Lorax LOVES a car powered by petrol… made from trees. A confusing message to send out you say? Well that pretty much sums up the entire film: confused. Most of the “extra” material not mentioned in Seuss’ book is simply padding to give context and get to the Lorax part of the tale (and he only sticks around for about 1/2 the entire film). All of these shortcomings just compound how bitter a pill this is to swallow, as it looks beautiful – the animators have rendered Seuss’ world with such loving detail; it’s just a shame that the script has all the charm and charisma of a tin of stale sardines.

The Lorax

Place your bets for a good review… now.

So what about the humour? Surely this film succeeds in that area? Well, I’m afraid not. Whilst I found Ice Age: Continental Drift unexpectedly engaging and genuinely funny in places, I found myself sitting there like the Grinch for this film. And others in the screening reflected this mood. There were muted sniggers from some, and the kids laughed every time a bear or fish made a meaningless squawk, but there was nothing really entertaining about the script. And let’s never speak of those joyless songs. That’s why it’s such a shame to hear that DeVito not only recorded his voiceover in English, but also in Russian, Spanish, German and Italian despite speaking none of these languages: he did it all phonetically. This is a simply mind-blowing approach to voiceover work, which is why it’s so soul destroying to see a film of such lacklustre calibre after all that effort.

I really wanted to like The Lorax, I really did. I always root for an underdog, and after disagreeing with fellow critics’ opinions on Ice Age: Continental Drift, I thought I too might find some green shoots of quality on which to feast, but instead was left with a mouthful of tarmac. If only the Once-ler had obeyed the laws of basic economics and just replenished his supply of trees as he went – he’d have made untold profit and kept the environment going… and also prevented me from needing to sit through 86 minutes of poorly-scripted cinema.

And so dear reader I bring this woeful tale to a close,
as the fable of The Lorax has left The Phage somewhat morose.
Whilst easy on the eye and replete with pure intention,
the story’s dreadfully weak script makes one call one’s sanity into question.
And not even the sublime, multilingual DeVito: the once Oswold Copperpot,
can render this film’s flaws so easily forgot.
For The Lorax is no Horton… Not even a Grinch,
but you can’t help but wonder what next of Seuss’ books Hollywood will pinch.
So lest I end up sounding like old Yoda the Jedi,
I’ll end this little ditty and bid you goodbye.
But I’ll be taking bets on which tale they will next pilfer and pluck…
Or you could be one of those that no longer gives a …

Phage Factor: