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Dreamworks Animation Previews “Madagascar 3,” “Rise of the Guardians.”

Ah, Madagascar movies. How I always expect you to suck, and how mildly grateful I am when you exceed those ever-so-low expectations. I certainly didn’t think a third film was likely to be much of interest, but after a recent presentation of footage by Dreamworks Animation, I am at least looking forward to the 3D.

Madgascar 3, for those who haven’t paid particular attention, involves the four primary escaped zoo animals going to Europe in search of a way home to New York. I remember the giraffe voiced by David Schwimmer is named Melman, but without cheating and going to imdb I might as well admit that the names of Ben Stiller’s lion, Chris Rock’s zebra, and Jada Pinkett-Smith’s hippo escape me. Ditto Sacha Baron Cohen’s lemur king or whatever he is. It’s arguably a major case against celebrity voice-overs – although animation gives these celebrities the ability to disappear into a character, none of them really does.

No matter. Based on the footage shown, this is going to be more action-oriented than its two predecessors, starting with a Bond-meets-Mission-Impossible casino raid in Monte Carlo, that then turns into a big car chase in a battered van that the penguins have souped up into something the A-Team would be proud of. The villain of the movie is Frances McDormand’s DuBois, a ruthless animal control officer who looks like a cross between Cruella DeVil and Margaret Thatcher (mounted heads on her wall include cute animals like puppies as well as wilder ones like snakes), and behaves like the T-1000, smashing through walls willy-nilly and hoisting her motorcycle above her head as needed in the course of a hot pursuit. More things explode in this one sequence than in the other two movies combined (to the best of my recollection, anyway), and it culminates in an aerial battle involving a plane fuselage that the chimps have souped up into a wing-flapping, Da Vinci-style flying machine with banana-cannons.

Later, our heroes climb aboard a circus train, in which they find a large Russian tiger (Bryan Cranston), a sensual jaguar (Jessica Chastain), and a goofy sea lion (Martin Short); it should be noted that these three big-name actors genuinely do disappear into character. The tiger’s not inclined to let them join the circus, but then the penguins buy the train outright with their Monte Carlo gambling gains. The goal then becomes putting on a big show in London that will earn them a tour to America, and the big twist here is (SPOILER, kinda) that instead of a traditional circus act, they go all Cirque du Soleil.

You may have noticed that Dreamworks animated films have a tendency to utilize overly familiar pop songs, and that hasn’t changed here. Baron Cohen sings C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat,” the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” and Nelly’s “Hot in Here”… and that’s just in 20 minutes or so of footage. The circus finale bit we saw was scored to Katy Perry, but that could be temp music.

Anyway, the visuals looked strong, with good (by which I mean wonderfully exploitative) use of 3D, and backgrounds that look more realistically textured and styled than the angular, stylized lead characters. How long they can draw out this narrative without realistically getting them back to the zoo is anybody’s guess, but presumably the penguins can take over in spin-off movies if that happens.

Also, it’s written by Noah Baumbach, of all people. That’s weird. Could bode well.

Rise of the Guardians is an unfortunate title for a CG feature, as it makes some of us think a sequel to Zack Snyder’s animated owl movie is on the way (and it should be – of all Snyder’s films, that deserves another installment most). But no, these guardians are based on a totally different series of children’s books, by artist and writer William Joyce. Their identities are familiar: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, the Man in the Moon, etc., all with the obligatory “twist,” natch: Santa (Alec Baldwin) is Russian and has tattoos (what is it with Dreamworks and big Russian cartoon characters with black markings on their bodies? Eastern Promises envy? One more will make a trend), Easter Bunny is named “Bunnymund” and voiced by Hugh Jackman (yes, OF COURSE he uses boomerangs as a weapon of choice), Sandman is like a magic Harpo Marx, and Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) looks like a sexy hummingbird. Santa’s workshop is run primarily by Yetis, as the Elves are tiny things whose entire bodies fit inside their pointy hats.

The trailer will premiere April 6, and it shows hints of all these characters. What it doesn’t show is the story’s main protagonist, Jack Frost (Chris Pine), whom we see born fully formed and clothed from a frozen lake, looking not unlike a barefoot fantasy-anime hero boy with a battle-staff (yes, I’m aware that “anime” covers a super-wide variety of stuff, and we’re obviously not talking Jin-Roh here. Think of the sort of anime that hits our mainstream and inspires video games – that’s the archetype here). Jack is shocked to learn that he is invisible and that people walk right through him, but excited by what appear to be his frost powers. This is the prologue.

Three centuries later, we go to Santa’s workshop, as his giant virtual reality globe full of shining lights gets overrun by dark tentacles and a maniacal laugh. It seems the Boogeyman (Jude Law) is back, and the Guardians will need a new member to help fight him. If you figured that new member might be Jack, you’re right. But he doesn’t want the job. Then Santa and Bunnymund give him some words of encouragement about how he knows nobody believes in Jack Frost, so Jack has to believe in himself, or something.

A lot of these clips were unfinished, but the impression I came away with was of a good story idea that seemed to be played too broadly. Maybe it won’t be, but it needs to show something more than the ingredients of a Tim Allen Santa Clause sequel.

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