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film review

Chris Rock and Bryan Cranston provide the voices of Marty the Zebra and Vitaly the Tiger.

The wise-cracking, globe-trotting crew from the Central Park Zoo hit the big screen again in Madagascar 3, a full-throttle, often surreal and definitely unhinged adventure across Europe via train in the company of a traveling circus. The critters' main goal is to return to Manhattan. But, as you can imagine, they gotta jump through a lot of hoops.

The third instalment in the successful DreamWorks Animation franchise is directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath (the same couple of monkeys who helmed the first two movies) and Conrad Vernon (Monsters Vs. Aliens). Darnell penned the snappy screenplay with writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), who adapted Roald Dahl's The Fantastic Mr. Fox with director Wes Anderson.

But the clever lines and themes of friendship and finding home are almost completely overwhelmed here by the breathless pace and sensory overload, enhanced by frequent sprays of candy-coloured circus action and the gravity-defying 3D treatment, which should probably come with a motion-sickness warning – especially for the, gulp, trapeze scenes.

The opening scene of Madagascar 3 almost feels like an alternative ending to the previous film, which closed with Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmeer), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and lemur King Julien XIII (Sacha Baron Cohen) comfortably settling in to their new home in the African savannah, as their penguin and chimp pals take off for Monte Carlo in a souped-up helicopter.

But the new friends and family that surrounded Alex and his pals in the last movie are nowhere to be seen here. After the penguins depart at warp speed, the rest of the gang snorkels across the Mediterranean to begin Operation Penguin Extraction in Monte Carlo, where the crafty penguins – who always have an array of high-tech gadgets handy – are cleaning up at the casino. All Alex wants is to convince the penguins to pilot the gang home to Manhattan, but their highly conspicuous entrance raises the alarm and soon Capt. Dubois (Frances McDormand), an evil French animal-control officer, is hot on their trail.

After a speedy and spectacular chase across the rooftops of Monte Carlo, the helicopter crash-lands and the animals hop on board a departing circus train, where they pass themselves off as "circus folk" to a troupe of pan-European animal performers who have definitely seen better days. A tired and disastrous show at Rome's Colisseum causes a riot. Clearly this troupe needs a new approach, and Alex is just the lion with the can-do spirit to inspire them.

Although the beautifully rendered and detailed city backdrops in Monte Carlo, Rome and London are an animation revelation, the new crew of Euro characters follow familiar cliches – the curvaceous Italian jaguar Gia (Jessica Chastain), the clownish Italian sea lion Stefano (Martin Short), a pack of thuggish British dogs and the brooding Borcht-slurping Siberian tiger Vitaly (Bryan Cranston), the most appealing of the bunch with an odd backstory involving olive oil and flaming-hoop trick.

As a villainess, Dubois moves like a cross between a black widow spider and a bloodhound – but like so much with the film her character is all about the visual. And her Edith Piaf number, intended to rouse her injured team and get laughs from the audience, falls flat.

There are some dark corners that could be pretty frightening to younger kids – the scene when the lemurs find themselves in a train compartment filled with dangling chains and hooks looks like something from a torture horror flick. And Dubois' attempts to kill Alex rather than just capture him feel uneccesarily violent.

But all you have to do is blink and the bad parts are gone. Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted is all about speed and razzle-dazzle, building to an eye-popping, over-the-big-top finale that leaves you wondering what they could possibly do for an encore.

Special to The Globe and Mail