Friday, November 28, 2008

Transporter 3: Revved up

Transporter 3 (2008) • View trailer for Transporter 3
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and brief drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.28.08
Buy DVD: Transporter 3 • Buy Blu-Ray: Transporter 3 [Blu-ray]

When it comes to cinematic guilty pleasures, few action stars deliver better than Jason Statham and his Transporter series.

The first film, released in 2002, had a lot to do with turning Statham into a household name; credit goes both to the actor and co-writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. The plots often don't make much sense, but as Besson — also a stylish action director, on other projects such as La Femme Nikita and The Professional — has demonstrated time and again, even silly storylines can be entertaining, if presented with enough panache.
Hoping to catch a couple of gun-toting thugs by surprise as they search a train,
a concealed Frank Martin (Jason Statham, left) spots a dangling motorcycle
helmet and deftly kicks it straight toward their heads ... merely one of countless
martial-arts stunts employed by the always engaging action star of this flick.

Flash-forward to the present day, at which point the impressively buff Statham has become England's answer to Jackie Chan in his prime: a martial-arts force of nature whose tightly choreographed exploits often involve furniture, clothing, stray household objects and anything else that can be snatched, smacked or kicked into an opponent's groin.

Transporter 3 has several choice fight scenes that gleefully adhere to this pattern, while also indulging every possible excuse to strip Statham to the waist. After all, with a bod like his, why be modest?

All the elements are in place as this film begins, with Statham's Frank Martin — on a break in between making his "high-risk deliveries" — enjoying some unexpectedly peaceful down time with his best (only?) friend, police inspector Tarconi (François Berléand). It can't last, of course; as Tarconi is summoned to an unusual crime scene, Frank heads home for a quiet evening.

Too bad a car smashes through the outer wall and hurtles into his living room.

The vehicle contains a badly wounded driver and a stunningly attractive young woman named Valentina (Natalya Rudakova); both wear rather odd-looking bracelets. Frank processes the latter bit of information too slowly; when ambulance attendants haul the injured man a specific distant from his vehicle, the bracelet explodes and kills everybody within range.

One crack on the head later, Frank wakes up to find himself wearing an identical bracelet. He's given an unusual assignment by his new "client," an unctuous fellow named Johnson (Robert Knepper): Drive the same young woman to a series of stops in Marseilles, Stuttgart, Budapest and Odessa, each time pausing long enough for additional instructions.

And if Frank ever moves too far away from his car, he'll meet the same fate that befell the previous driver.

With no choice in the matter, Frank reluctantly agrees.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Australia: Wizards of Oz

Australia (2008) • View trailer for Australia
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, brief sensuality and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.26.08
Buy DVD: Australia • Buy Blu-Ray: Australia [Blu-ray]

Blend the giddy, wonderfully inventive editing and swooping camera movements of Moulin Rouge with the sort of old-style epic storytelling Hollywood hasn't made in decades, sprinkle with a precocious narrator and top with megastar wattage, and the result is guaranteed to be a great time at the movies.

Actually, the result is Australia.
The snobbish aristocrats flee indoors when their high-society dance is "ruined"
by a sudden cloudburst, but Drover (Hugh Jackman) and Lady Sarah Ashley
(Nicole Kidman) have the opposite reaction: They know this sorm signals the
long-awaited end of the summer drought.

Director Baz Luhrmann, undoubtedly thirsting for some way to match the crowd-pleasing success of his Moulin Rouge, returned to the land of his birth to delve into the WWII-era events that dragged Australia onto the world stage once and for all. Luhrmann doesn't work rapidly — indeed, this is only his fourth film, after Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge — but his visual creativity and storytelling talent grow with each new project.

We Americans still honor the bombing of Pearl Harbor each Dec. 7, an event that seared our national consciousness at a level that wouldn't be matched until the 2001 destruction of the Twin Towers. But in our characteristically myopic way, we have very little knowledge of what happened in Australia at that same time, back in 1941, when the same Japanese air forces also leveled the city of Darwin.

And that's only a single chapter of the ambitious saga concocted here by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Australian novelist Richard Flanagan. The story begins in 1939, with a slightly whimsical tone that misleads us into expecting the sort of hearty Outback adventure depicted in (for example) The Man from Snowy River.

Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), prim and proper to the point of near absurdity, has been left in London while her husband attempts to augment the family fortune half a world away, in the unforgiving terrain of Australia's Northern Territory. Contact is sparse, and Sarah grows impatient; she decides to hop a plane — dragging along what seems like half of London's fashion district in her scores of suitcases — and investigate the situation personally.

She arrives in the middle of a barroom brawl that has erupted because the man known only as "the Drover" (Hugh Jackman) has responded unkindly to a racist remark directed at his longtime mate, an Aboriginal stockman named Magarri (David Ngoombujarra). This dust-up is staged for maximum comic effect, and of course Sarah eventually discovers that Drover is the "reliable man" sent to bring her to Faraway Downs, where her husband has been struggling to build a cattle empire.

As far as Sarah and Drover are concerned, it's mutual loathing at first sight. (Naturally, we don't expect that to last long.)

Unfortunately, Sarah reaches her property only to find that her husband has been murdered, supposedly by an Aboriginal "witch doctor" named King George (David Gulpilil, an Australian film legend who debuted all the way back in 1971's Walkabout). King George is known to linger near the property, because he's keeping an eye on his grandson, Nullah (Brandon Walters, making an impressive acting debut).

Nullah shares an extraordinary bond with his grandfather; the two communicate through chanting and singing, and the boy has an unquenchable curiosity about all things musical.

Faraway Downs itself is on the brink of ruin, and manager Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) strongly advises that Sarah simply sell off the property and return home.

The story to this point — and from this point forward — is narrated by young Nullah, as captivating a presence as the similarly young protagonist who recounted Mel Gibson's quasi-magical exploits in The Road Warrior. Nullah's chopped English is heart-tugging from the get-go, the words tumbling from Walters' mouth as if he can't, in his enthusiasm, get them out quickly enough.

But for all his wide-eyed irrepressibility, Nullah is a tragic figure: a half-Aboriginal, half-Caucasian boy adrift in a rigorously segregated society that treats him as an outcast. He's vulgarly dubbed a "creamy" by the likes of Fletcher ... which is grimly ironic, since this sneering low-life is the boy's father.

On top of which, if Darwin's "civilized" Catholic church element catches wind of Nullah's presence, the boy will be snatched away from his mother and sent to the sort of ghastly orphanage depicted so well in 2002's Rabbit Proof Fence.

Sarah soon learns that Fletcher is much worse than a racist; although ostensibly working for her late husband, the station manager actually has been plotting with local cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown), who aims to monopolize the entire Australian beef industry, and covets possession of Faraway Downs and its sturdy herd of four-legged steaks.

Names aren't accidental in this story, by the way, and make no mistake: What follows will be a contest between these two "Kings."

Back in Darwin, Carney holds the upper hand and is trying to force a contract to supply beef to the awakening Australian military presence ... at a price-gouging level that Capt. Dutton (Ben Mendelsohn) hopes to resist.

Having deduced Fletcher's perfidy, Sarah fires him; her dander now up, she determines to bring her cattle to market. Unfortunately, Fletcher has taken the crew with him, and she's left with pretty much nobody.

Until Drover reappears.

Roped into this English rose's harebrained scheme, Drover reluctantly agrees to lead a cattle drive with half a dozen misfit riders who include Sarah, Nullah, a couple of Aboriginal women and alcoholic accountant Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson).

Up to this point, Luhrmann's tone has been light, and his film has the rugged but playful atmosphere of, say, Howard Hawks' Hatari, with Jackman standing in for John Wayne, and Kidman the obligatory "useless woman" destined to smarten up and toughen up. Brown and Wenham make great villains: the former the backroom schemer, the latter the lackey willing to get his hands dirty.

Even now, though, this deceptively superficial "Western" has undercurrents of genuine tension, starting with the vulnerable Nullah's very presence; we've also already seen that Luhrmann isn't afraid to pull his punches, and tragedy enters these proceedings pretty quickly.

Then things really roar into full throttle, and the ride never lets up for the duration of the film's nearly three-hour running time. The stakes get higher, the tension waxes, wanes and waxes again, and you'll be at the edge of your seat, heart in mouth, for pretty much the entire final hour.

Jackman is a sturdy leading man, able to satisfy the extremely eclectic character demands placed on Drover. He has no patience for the racist swine who infect Darwin's upper-crust society, and is far more at home with Aboriginal companions, for which he makes no apologies. Drover's also an expert rider, horse whisperer and gallant doer of good deeds: a man of integrity who'll not back down from a fight that involves injustice.

Factor in Jackman's winning smile, and you can't miss.

Indeed, Luhrmann obviously recognizes the magnificent asset he has in his leading man, and the film comes with two iconic "Jackman moments" guaranteed to set female hearts a-fluttering across the land: the first out in the rough-and-tumble Outback, when the actor doffs his shirt for a soapy scrubdown; the second worlds and attitudes away, in Darwin, when Drover pops up in a perfectly tailored, cream-colored tux.

But Jackman is much more than good looks; his laid-back charm is a force of nature, and he also persuasively sells Drover's more serious moments, or his explosions of justified indignation.

Kidman, in great contrast, starts out as an object of near-ridicule, her prissy exterior almost laughably at odds with the steel Sarah tries — and initially fails — to inject into her tone. By design, Lady Sarah initially floats above these proceedings, refusing to embrace either this land or its people, as befits her aristocratic upbringing. The eventual thaw, slow in coming, arrives as this dainty creature becomes increasingly protective of Nullah.

We realize, suddenly, that Kidman's Sarah no longer is a comic stereotype, and has embraced both her companions and her new environment.

Thompson and Brown, both veteran Aussie character actors, capably fill their Outback archetypal roles. Wenham is an intriguing study: an apparently minor-league thug initially dismissed as inconsequential, who surprises us with both his resilience and capacity for evil.

Gulpilil's King George is fascinating throughout: particularly intriguing, given that his role is mostly silent.

But young Walters is the glue that binds this film; he's probably in more scenes that either Jackman or Kidman, and the young actor rises to the challenge, and then some.

Cinematographer Mandy Walker shoots these proceedings to emphasize the Northern Territory's lush expanse, and the film stock has the rich color and razor-sharp resolution of classic John Ford Westerns. Production designer G. Mac Brown has his hands full, whether going for tired and baked, as the dilapidated Faraway Downs is introduced, or establishing the harbor at Darwin, warships at the ready, but waiting like sitting ducks for what is to come.

Composer David Hirschfelder's dramatic score is appropriately sweeping and orchestral, while music supervisor Anton Monsted makes canny use of source songs, none better employed than Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg's "Over the Rainbow."

I can't remember the last time I had so many emotions tweaked during a film, while also having this much fun. Oh, wait, yes I can: It was during Moulin Rouge.

Australia will similarly pack 'em in during the entire holiday season.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Twilight: Somewhat anemic

Twilight (2008) • View trailer for Twilight
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence and brief sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.21.08
Buy DVD: Twilight • Buy Blu-Ray: Twilight [Blu-ray]

Judging by the delighted squeals from the primarily female teenage audience at Tuesday evening's preview screening, director Catherine Hardwicke and scripter Melissa Rosenberg did right by their adaptation of Twilight, the first novel in Stephenie Meyer's insanely popular vampire series.
Having accepted the fact that Bella (Kristen Stewart) knows that he's far from an
average teenager, Edward (Robert Pattinson) confirms her suspicions by
effortlessly carrying her up to the top of a huge tree, where the two then exchange
smoldering, love-struck glances. Such is the nature of a growing relationship
between human and vampire, in this big-screen adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's
first novel.

Certainly the casting is spot-on, starting with Kristen Stewart as the mousy, subdued and yet stubbornly fearless Bella Swan, and Robert Pattinson as the hypnotically alluring vampire, Edward Cullen. The hesitant, fragile manner in which their star-crossed romance unfolds — so Romeo and Juliet — is this film's strongest and most appealing asset.

I'd expect that from Hardwicke, who explored the rebellious angst of young girls so superbly in 2003's Thirteen. She coaxes a persuasive performance from Stewart, who in turn makes Bella a perceptive and plucky heroine who refuses to back down after discovering that the guy she's sweet on has ... a socially unacceptable diet.

To the extent that we'd ever buy the notion of a young woman throwing herself into the arms of such danger, Stewart makes it work.

Pattinson, in turn, is just as believable as a deeply conflicted vampire who can't help being attracted to this new girl in town, despite his quite reasonable concern that blood lust might overpower his otherwise cautionary instincts. In Meyers' world, you see, a too-close proximity to humans can send vampires into a crazed, uncontrollable killing frenzy.

And the actual sight of human blood? Much, much worse.

It's the ultimate doomed relationship, and Hardwicke and Rosenberg take their time establishing its parameters — which is to say, torturing both Bella and Edward with uncertainty and raging mood swings — just as Meyers does in her book.

Indeed, in this respect — and I can hear the howls of indignation already, as a result of what I'm about to say — Rosenberg's script is vastly superior to Meyers' often laughably over-written novel. This film's first act unfolds quite economically, in roughly an hour, which is far more satisfying than the 150-plus pages Meyers takes to cover the same ground, often with breathlessly purple prose.

Occasionally, though, no doubt wanting to please fans desperate to hear at least some of the same dialogue, Rosenberg lifts some passages directly from the book. Sometimes they work; sometimes they don't. Even Stewart can't sell a particularly clumsy voice-over where she acknowledges three things she knows about Edward; the line prompted snickers from some of the less faithful.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: Grim bedtime story

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) • View trailer for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.20.08
Buy DVD: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas • Buy Blu-Ray: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas [Blu-ray]

Innocence, inevitably, is the first casualty of war.

Children, their hungry and ever-inquisitive minds not yet shaped by hardened reality, experience events — even tragic events – far differently than adults. In Hope and Glory, director John Boorman's 1987 film memoir of his experiences during World War II, his childhood self and friends found great adventure in the rubble of homes bombed during the London blitz.
Having disobeyed strict orders to remain in his own enclosed yard, 8-year-old
Bruno (Asa Butterfield) makes his way through a woodsy area, crosses a stream
and is astonished to find Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a boy his own age, on the far
side of a wicked fence. Try as he might, Bruno cannot fathom the purpose
behind this enclosed "farm," and his quest for answers becomes increasingly
horrifying, as this film moves to its final act.

All those years later, theater audiences briefly found such behavior heartless and horrifying, then realized they were missing the point: Such actions were not disrespectful, but instead represented the resilience of the youthful human soul ... indeed, the hope of future generations. Children — little sponges, all — are the vessels into which we pour our best virtues ... or our most heinous faults.

Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is the child at the heart of director/scripter Mark Herman's eloquent and deeply moving adaptation of novelist John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, yet another intriguing take on the WWII Holocaust. The film is both memorably poignant and tremendously important, as it indicts human ugliness through the insight of the ultimate judge: a young boy's instinctive desire to believe the best of his father.

I recall mentioning, earlier this year in a review of The Counterfeiter, how fascinating it is, at this late date, that dramatists continue to find fresh insight — indeed, as-yet unexplored actual events — in a subject and time period that one would have thought exhausted decades ago. And now it's happening again: As 2008 draws to a close, we're getting not just one but two new sagas of Nazi horror: this fictitious parable by Boyne, and the fact-based Defiance, certain to show a far different side of star Daniel Craig, currently basking in the limelight as James Bond.

Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. Great drama springs not from how we react during our workaday lives, but how we rise — or fall — to the challenge of a soul-numbing crisis. And although world events continue to provide fresh atrocities that one day will inspire their own body of drama — Darfur and Guantanamo Bay come to mind — precious little can match the Holocaust for its depiction of humanity at its most evil, on the one side, and resiliently courageous, on the other.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas begins in Berlin, in the deliberately vague early 1940s, as 8-year-old Bruno learns that his family will be moving to the countryside. The relocation is prompted by his father's military career; although sympathetic about the friends his son will leave behind, the man (David Thewlis) gently explains that a soldier must respond to the call of duty.

Bruno's equally dutiful mother (Vera Farmiga) seems complacently content with this; Bruno's 12-year-old sister, Gretel (Amber Beattie), recognizing her role is to set a good example for her younger brother, smiles bravely.

We wonder, idly, precisely what sort of "soldier" Bruno's father is. We don't wonder very long.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Quantum of Solace: Quantum thrills

Quantum of Solace (2008) • View trailer for Quantum of Solace
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.14.08
Buy DVD: Quantum of Solace • Buy Blu-Ray: Quantum of Solace [Blu-ray]

One expects many things from a James Bond film — furious action scenes, mordant one-liners, compliant female companions — but political topicality isn't high on the list.

And yet Quantum of Solace boasts a central plotline ripped from today's headlines: a subject so serious that a grim documentary, Flow, has been making the rounds even as this newest Bond adventure explodes on screens across the world.
Somewhat worse for the wear, James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Camille (Olga
Kurylenko) manage to escape from one tight spot, only to find themselves in
the midst of an even worse predicament. Truly, though, what else would we
expect of an 007 adventure?

Daniel Craig once again cuts an impressive figure as both the most physically imposing and vulnerable 007 the 22-film series has delivered, and he also fills the stylish Tom Ford suits with considerable aplomb.

As was the case with Casino Royale, though, the much-welcomed series reboot isn't limited merely to the actor whom naysayers once foolishly dismissed as "the blond Bond"; scripters Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have built another ground-level thriller as far removed from the cartoon megalomania of (for example) Moonraker and Tomorrow Never Dies as could be imagined.

Clearly, the re-booted Bond formula has been influenced heavily by the success of Matt Damon's Bourne entries, but that's just fine; we need to remember that Bond was there first anyway, when the series debuted back in the 1960s, with the more realistic From Russia with Love and On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Both those earlier films also had an emotional undercurrent that vanished as Bond moved into the 1970s and '80s; watching Craig resurrect that aspect of our not-so-secret agent is a welcome sight.

Quantum of Solace begins minutes after the adrenalin-pumping finale of Casino Royale, as Bond bundles the injured Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) into the trunk of his car — you'll recall that 007 shot White, having deduced that this shadowy figure had something to do with Vesper's death in the previous film — and attempts to deliver this baddie to an interrogation session with M (Judi Dench).

First, though, we're treated to a literally smashing car chase — Aston Martin vs. Alfa Romeo — taking place on a crowded, enclosed mountainside highway along Northern Italy's Lake Garda: a novelty because of the bumper-to-bumper traffic which you'd think would make such an action sequence impossible.

The subsequent session with White also hits an unexpected snag, which leads to the film's second breathtaking action sequence: a footchase that manages to outdo the "free-running" sequence that so stylishly kicked off Casino Royale. Second unit director Dan Bradley and stunt coordinator Gary Powell do astonishing things with this hell-for-leather pursuit; the result is a visceral thrill-ride that'll literally catch your breath.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Role Models: Model misbehavior

Role Models (2008) • View trailer for Role Models
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for smutty sexual content, nudity and relentless profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.13.08
Buy DVD: Role Models • Buy Blu-Ray: Role Models [Blu-ray]

Try as they might, some actors just aren't meant to be stars.

Paul Rudd is one of them.

He might best be remembered for his semi-regular gigs on TV's Friends and Reno 911, or his supporting performances in high-profile comedies such as Night at the Museum and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Would you want these two clowns spending time with your kids? Rather than
endure a 30-day stint in the slammer, Danny (Paul Rudd, center left) and
Wheeler (Seann William Scott, center right) agree to participate in a mentoring
program; they wind up assigned to, respectively, a geeky teen named Augie
(Christopher Mintz-Plasse, left) and an aggressively foul-mouthed fifth-grader
named Ronnie (Bobb'E J. Thompson). Rudd's morose expression in this photo
pretty much sums up the film's entire mood.

Rudd is not, however, leading man material.

He very nearly sinks Role Models, but in fairness this half-hearted comedy doesn't represent impressive effort on anybody's part, from its largely listless cast to David Wain's apparently disinterested direction.

Even the usually irrepressible Seann William Scott, such a hoot in the American Pie series, can't do more than muster up a pale imitation of his randy character from those films.

The script is credited to Rudd, Wain, Ken Marino, Timothy Dowling and William Blake Herron ... which is at least two names too many, and a certain sign that the finished product has been re-tweaked beyond any hope of salvation.

And it'd be a total loss were it not for the presence of — are you ready for the irony? — its two supporting players.

Both Christopher Mintz-Plasse and young Bobb'E J. Thompson are a hoot 'n' a holler: far funnier and much more interesting than Rudd and Scott. Mintz-Plasse and Thompson also are much better actors, and the latter's only 10 years old.

Rudd and Scott star as Danny and Wheeler, two frontmen for Minotaur energy drinks. Wheeler, with minimal career goals, has a great time dressing up as the company's minotaur mascot during the countless "Don't do drugs" school assemblies that fill their days. Danny, on the other hand, views his 10 years with the company as a sign that his life has gone nowhere.

Danny's increased self-loathing finally poisons his seven-year relationship with girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks), who dumps him.

With this as a catalyst, Danny drags Wheeler into an "incident" with the Minotaur company truck; the result is a sentence of 150 hours of community service in a mentorship program called Sturdy Wings, clearly modeled after Big Brother.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Madagascar, Escape 2 Africa: African pride

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008) • View trailer for Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
Four stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.7.08
Buy DVD: Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa • Buy Blu-Ray: Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

Rare is the sequel that outshines its predecessor.

Godfather 2 comes to mind, along with Aliens.

And now, on a much more trivial — but no less entertaining — level, we can add Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.
This doesn't look like New York! After a near-death experience while flying
Penguin Airways, our heroes — from left, Melman, Gloria, Alex and Marty —
are astonished to discover that they've been dumped into an African wild animal
preserve. Better still, a nearby watering hole boasts a wealth of giraffes, hippos,
lions and zebras. Could this be ... home?

The degree to which 2005's Madagascar entered the public consciousness has been obvious for months, as movie fans young and old burst into smiles and bobbed their heads in time with the theater preview's signature tune refrain of "We like to move it, move it." Clearly, interest has been high in this second visit with Alex the lion, Marty the zebra, Melman the giraffe and Gloria the hippo.

Ironically, though, those very lyrics had much to do with my dissatisfaction with the first Madagascar. It didn't move all that well, with a first act that couldn't quite make up its mind which approach to take, and characters that seemed little more than animated vehicles for the endless one-liners spouted by (respectively) Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Individuality and purpose were seriously lacking, which made it difficult to identify with the four heroes, no matter how cleverly they were animated.

Well, directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath — who, with Etan Cohen, also wrote this script — have improved things considerably. Aside from the clever sight gags and the often screamingly funny situations into which our protagonists are dumped, each critter also gets a serious dramatic character arc, all of which tie in with the larger running narrative: the ongoing desire to leave this wild environment and return to the comforts of the New York Zoo.

First, though, we're treated to a prologue that recaps the major plot points of the first film, and adds some crucial backstory, as we discover how Alex wound up in New York in the first place. This involves a pell-mell chase and a tragic moment of parental loss, both of which signal the zippy pacing and more involving dramatic arcs to come.

Then it's back to the present, as our four friends happily board the dilapidated plane somehow resurrected by all the lemurs under the rule of the cheerfully daffy King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen). Everybody expects a smooth flight, which seems foolish, given that the aircraft is being piloted by the militarily precise but clueless penguins (Chris Miller, Christopher Knights and McGrath).

And, sure enough, the trip comes to an abrupt halt, dumping our entire cast in the middle of an African wild animal preserve, in a crash sequence with enough hilarious sight gags to fuel the entire film, let alone this madcap three-minute sequence.