At some point during every non-Pixar animated film, there is a moment when one thinks, "This just isn't Pixar."
But the gap has narrowed, and that's clear while watching the bubbly "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted." While an even lesser Pixar product like "Cars 2" is still commercially successful, well-made entertainment, other animation studios untethered to Disney have brought their "A" game during recent years.
Consider Universal's "Despicable Me" and "Lorax," or more specifically, something like DreamWorks Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon," one of 2010's most acclaimed films, animated or otherwise.
Jeffrey Katzenberg and Company may still be sullied by the gross-out "Shrek" series, and neither of the first two "Madagascar" films earned real raves, but clearly, a finely tuned formula is in use here. And with "Madagascar 3," it certainly works.
The first film, in 2005, introduced us to four residents of the Central Park Zoo: Alex, a rather dull lion (voiced by Ben Stiller); Marty, a sassy zebra (Chris Rock); Gloria, a sweet-natured hippopotamus (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman, a sad-sack giraffe (David Schwimmer).
But let's be frank, kids. Even viewers who saw and ate up the sequel "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," could probably care less about Alex, Gloria or Melman. (Rock's zebra is a highlight; his "Afro circus" song will rattle in your noggin for days.) The periphery characters -- the wisenheimer penguins and Sacha Baron Cohen's singing, dancing lemur, King Julien -- are the real stars of the series. Happily, they are front and center throughout the film.
Following a rather scary (for wee ones) dream sequence, little time is wasted before plunging into action. Opening in Africa, our depressed quartet decides it's time to head back to the Big Apple.
But first they must follow the ultra-smart, cash-crazed penguins to Monte Carlo, where they are letting it ride and winning big. The inevitable chaos ensues, and our principal villain, Frances McDormand's scooter-riding, Piaf-singing animal control officer Captain Chantel DuBois, is on the case.
After a wild chase through Monte Carlo that was particularly anarchic in 3-D, the gang joins up with a traveling circus led by sneering tiger Vitaly (a note-perfect Bryan Cranston), comely jaguar Gia (Jessica Chastain) and lovable sea lion Stefano (Martin Short steals the movie, unsurprisingly).
Exposition overload? Perhaps, but it moves so quickly, and is scripted so well, that it's hard to be annoyed.
How much of that is thanks to co-writer Noah Baumbach, it's hard to say. Yes -- Noah Baumbach. The writer-director who has become a keyword for flawed, dysfunctional, painfully self-involved characters in the likes of "The Squid and the Whale" and "Greenberg" (I'm a big fan, even if it doesn't sound like it), was brought in to punch up "Madagascar 3," as odd as that may seem.
There are a few borderline inappropriate moments, mainly involving the deliriously loopy Cohen-voiced lemur's romance with a bear (don't ask), but by the time the animals perform a fluorescent-colored Cirque du Soleil-style extravaganza soundtracked by Katy Perry's "Firework," I was more than satisfied, and the children attending the 3-D screening seemed quite pleased.
Emotional involvement is nil, but it's simply a nice bit of summer fluff, and there are even a few under-the-kiddie-radar jokes that should give adults a few chuckles, too.
While it lacks the heart of a "Wall-E," an "Up" or even an "Incredibles," it proves DreamWorks, and non-Pixar animated entertainment in general, is still relevant. The House That Jobs Built has not been beaten yet, but the race is getting closer.
MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE'S MOST WANTED
3 stars (out of 4)
WITH THE VOICES OF: Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer
DIRECTORS: Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
RATING: PG for some mild action and rude humor.
THE LOWDOWN: The animals from "Madagascar" join a traveling circus while trying to return home to the Central Park Zoo.