It's turning out to be a surprising summer, and not just because of the mercury rising. Summer release film franchises are not only displaying longer legs than common sense would allow, but also running creatively with them.

Who would have thought the third iteration of Men In Black could rediscover the spark; or that the “non-prequel” prequel in the Alien saga, Prometheus, would recapture the long-absent wonderment of the sci-fi genre; or, indeed, that Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted would revive the high notes of the chuckle-o-meter.

Mad 3 reunites us with Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller) and his ex-New Yorker pals — Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith). Despite the African fun and frolic in Mad 2, Alex and his buddies are now homesick.

But returning to the Big Apple and Central Park Zoo requires the help of their other cronies: the penguins with a plan. As the felonious fowls are in the midst of an ambitiously orchestrated casino theft, Alex & Co decide to snorkel across the Mediterranean to Monte Carlo to find them. The heist goes hopelessly awry when the menagerie — literally — drop in on the birds.

The animals become fugitives, with wacko animal control cop, Capt. Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand) hot on their heels. To keep his head from being the next trophy on the Captain's wall — and to travel across Europe and into the U.S. undetected — Alex figures that a down-and-out travelling circus offers the perfect cover for him and his buddies.

The circus animals are not particularly welcoming, especially the grumpy Siberian tiger Vitaly (Bryan Cranston) who's — justifiably — dubious about the American stowaways' circus credentials.

More sympathetic are the sexy jaguar Gia (Jessica Chastain) and the chattering sea lion Stefano (Martin Short), who think there's potential in Alex's plans to revive the fortunes of the circus. His vision: create a Cirque du Soleil-style show, but entirely with animals — a nice irony, seeing how the Cirque crafted their signature style by designing acts where the animals were replaced by humans.

Throw into this frenzied activity and action, some inter-species amour via the lemur King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen), who falls in love with a surly bike-riding bear; some gentle bashing of non-American cultures, such as the reference to Europeans who “only have to work two weeks a year”, and the response, “So, they have the Canadian work ethic”; and some impressive circus set pieces.

In Mad 3, directors Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, Conrad Vernon have upped the ante to a visual aesthetic that goes beyond the regular rainbow into extravagant neon. This is accompanied by non-stop spectacular feats that — like the movie's hippo and giraffe suspended on a tightrope — stretch our suspension of disbelief almost to breaking point.

Surprisingly, it doesn't quite break. The oddball menagerie holds it all together — our attention, the story, the distended tightrope — for just enough time so that we are both entertained and amused.

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

Genre: Animation/Comedy

Director: Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, Conrad Vernon

Cast: Voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Frances McDormand

Storyline: Alex the lion and his friends try to find a way back to the Big Apple by joining a travelling circus.

Bottomline: Family fun in tech-neon-colour.

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English Cinema ReviewsOctober 17, 2011