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DreamWorks’ delightful zoo buddies find some new European pals in the third chapter of the Madagascar trilogy.
After the huge box office success of their first two movies, everybody knew Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria were going to have more eye-popping adventures on the big screen. The lovable New York City zoo animals, which first rose into stardom in summer of 2005, are continuing their madcap trek around the world in DreamWorks Animation’s summer treat Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.
In this new outing, which is co-directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath (who also led the first two Madagascar films) and Conrad Vernon (Shrek 2, Monsters vs. Aliens), the zoosters find themselves in Monte Carlo trailing the penguins and chimps who have pulled off a crazy casino heist. Soon, they are chased by the French animal control officer Captain Chantel DuBois (voiced by Frances McDormand) and forced to hide in a third-rate traveling circus, where they meet new friends Vitaly the tiger (Bryan Cranston), Stefano the Italian sea lion (Martin Short) and Gia, the exotic Jaguar (Jessica Chastain).
“I’m really happy with the epic quality that we have achieved,” says DreamWorks veteran Vernon. “We follow these characters through some of the most dramatic places in Europe. We were inspired by those colorful Sean Connery James Bond movies. You are in five different, amazingly beautiful locations. Everything seems huge—Monte Carlo, Rome, the Swiss Alps, London—and then we have a great circus sequence that’s visually mind-blowing, especially in 3-D.”
Like the true professionals that they are, the helmers did plenty of research to prepare for the animals’ European trek.
“We looked at every circus we could find, from tiny ones that travel up and down the state of California,” reveals Darnell. “We spent time at the Casino in Monte Carlo and were stunned when they actually offered to let us see the casino roof, which we ended up putting in the movie. We even traveled to London, Rome and the Swiss Alps and took thousands of pictures to make sure that all our visuals would be authentic.”
McGrath, who also voices Skipper the penguin, tells us that the idea of bringing the animals’ story full circle really appealed to him.
“It’s not really open-ended,” he notes. “We have these great characters and the new additions to the cast, Vitaly, Stefano and Gia, all have storylines that are really relatable. Perhaps having a lion which has to fight his instinct to eat his zebra friend isn’t as relatable as the material in our third film. Although the movie is a really wonderful worldwide adventure, the heart of it is about two groups meeting and getting along.”
A couple of things to remember about the third go-around for the animals: CG animation has vastly improved in the past 10 years and this is the first time we get to see the gang in glorious 3-D.
“The tools get better and better,” says McGrath. “We started working on the first film about 12 year ago. Back then, almost everyone wanted to do more realistic CG. What we wanted to do was deliver the same style of animation as Tex Avery and Bob Clampett, the type of animation that has a broad and cartoony style and is more playful with the timing. It really took us eight years to get our chops up. Our animators can now do the same type of animation in CG as they were doing in those 2D classics from the ’50s. You can definitely see it with the new characters, too. The new tools let us move and distort them like never before.”
McGrath says compared to what the technology can achieve these days, the early films have a certain videogame quality about them.
“We can do so much more geometry and design work in CG today,” he adds. “Back then we used to rely a lot more on matte painting. Computers are a lot faster, and we can move the camera all over the place.”
Another reason for this new era of animation is because the artists have learned to use the old tools in new ways.
“One of the examples in the new movie is that we were using the animation software Primo, which is much more intuitive than the other tools we used before,” says McGrath. “But more than that, our animators are the real secret ingredient. You just don’t need to be a technical guy to move the characters around anymore. The tools are much easier and more convenient to use today.”
Homage to Dumbo and Fantasia
Darnell says he loved the fact that they were able to get a lot of great action sequences, including a glorious car chase, in this third chapter. He also praises the pic’s dazzling cinematography and production design.
“We were looking at classics like the ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ sequence from Disney’s Dumbo,” says the director. “We wanted the circus act in the third act to look more surreal and not be locked into reality. Yes, it’s a cartoon, but there are always certain rules about what we can and can’t do. In this case, we really pushed the limits of how we depicted that scene.”
The three directors and the art team, led by production designer Kendal Cronkhite and art director Shannon Jeffries, worked together to come up with outlandish ideas that they could really have fun with at the circus.
“They delivered these beautiful paintings,” recalls Vernon. “Then, we went from there and made them more spectacular and crazy. We really took it in a new direction when we figured out it needed to be really psychedelic. We really don’t need to see the wires and the strings because we wanted to be more magical with this circus. Whenever I’m doing a storyboard, I lose myself in time and space. We wanted to convey this same notion with the animals. Things seem to turn upside down and they are floating around and doing impossible things.”
The directors are also proud of the way they explored 3-D stereography to maximize the project’s eye candy.
“Because this was the first Madagascar film that was in 3-D, we went back and revisited the previous two, and we found out that there were so many scenes in them that would actually work beautifully in 3-D!” says Darnell. “It just came naturally through the style and tone of the film. A circus, of course, is a wonderful, natural way to get mileage out of the format. We also really took advantage of 3-D in the crazy action sequences.”
Exploring New Horizons
As in any film trilogy, the writers and directors of the film got another chance to explore the characters’ relationships and idiosyncrasies.
“We didn’t really want to go into this movie just because the last one was a huge international success,” explains Darnell. “We got the opportunity to really finish the story we set out to tell. Since our friends left their home in New York City, we needed to get them to the zoo again. What’s great about working with these characters for such a long time is that we just know what makes Alex tick or how the dynamics of their friendships work. But you also get to delve deeper into the material.”
McGrath totally agrees with his directing partner.
“The story is always the biggest challenge, because we have four zoo animals and then the ensemble cast of all the additional animals, the chimps, the penguins and the new additions. You only have about 80 minutes to tell a story involving 25 or so characters, and you have to negotiate the screen time. It’s a comedy, but you really have to find the heart of the story.”
So what happens if this third installment is just as, or more, popular than the previous films? Will they come up with more adventures for the zoosters?
“On the one hand, we really wrapped things up nicely in this one,” confesses Darnell “But if the movie does well and we come up with an amazing idea that takes advantage of these fantastic characters that people love, we’d be crazy not to go for it!”
DreamWorks Animation’s Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted premieres at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Paramount releases the film in U.S. theaters on June 8.