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madagascar-3As summer blockbusters go, there is more invention and fun in the first twenty minutes of “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” than in all of “Battleship” and “Men in Black 3” combined.

As the movie opens Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), zebra Marty (Chris Rock), giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) and hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) are still stranded in the African savannah with dreams of returning to their New York home. Unfortunately their plane has been hijacked by some shady penguins, who are whooping it up on the French Rivera. The menagerie makes their way to Monte Carlo with an eye toward getting their plane back and heading home. There they attract the attention of Capt. Chantal Dubois (Frances McDormand) a psychotic animal-control officer determined to add Alex’s head to her trophy wall.

To escape from her grip they join an America-bound circus featuring jaguar Gia (Jessica Chastain) sea lion Stefano (Martin Short) and Siberian tiger Vitaly (Bryan Cranston). The animal performers have seen better days, and while they keep Alex and friends safe (for the time being) from the clutches of Dubois, some changes will have to be made if this circus will be able to cut it in America.

“Madagascar” series has ever been my favorite animated franchise. I found the first two films pleasant enough, but not memorable—with the exception of the wisecracking penguins. They are bright, colorful films with good messages but they didn’t have the oomph of Pixar, or even other Dreamworks animations like “How to Train Your Dragon.”

Until now.

The addition of writer Noah “Squid and the Whale” Baumbach has brought with it a sensibility and humor missing from the other films. It’s rare that a franchise improves as it hits its third installment, but “Madagascar” has.

The new film is funny—it’s worth the price of admission to hear Chris Rock’s Polka Dot Afro Circus song—surreal and literally bursts off the screen in an explosion of neon colored 3-D. It’s frenetic, but imaginative with gags hidden throughout and several show-stopping action and musical sequences.

The penguins still steal the show, but this time around the script and look of the film give them a run for their money.

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