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Madagascar hails from DreamWorks’ animation division, the same outfit that brought us Shrek 2 as well as such outings as Shark Tale and The Road to El Dorado. Clearly, this toon unit doesn’t rely on sentiment as heavily as Disney, preferring instead to come across as the hippest cel block in town. But this constant attempt to remain up-to-date on the latest lingo, fads and pop culture references have, in my opinion, doomed their efforts to a shorter shelf life than the timeless tales generally churned out by Disney. What’s more likely to move audiences 35 years from now: The Incredibles, with its emotionally involving storyline about a family in crisis, or Shark Tale, with its flashy hipster stylings failing to disguise the thinness of the material? All of which makes Madagascar an odd little bird (no, I don’t mean the penguins). More than just about any other recent toon flick, it strikes an appropriate balance between Disney and non-Disney, being neither too sudsy nor too smart-alecky. The animal quartet at the center of Madagascar is comprised of the narcissistic lion Alex (Ben Stiller), the affable zebra Marty (Chris Rock), the commonsensical hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) and the hypochondriac giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer). All are living in peaceful contentment at New York’s Central Park Zoo, satisfied with their meals, living quarters and celebrity status with the zoo’s visitors. But on his 10th birthday, Marty begins to question not only his lot in life but his very being. Is he black with white stripes, or white with black stripes? Taking a cue from the penguins, four no-nonsense types who plan to dig their way to Antarctica, Marty manages to escape from the zoo, only to be tracked down by his friends at Grand Central Station. But all the escapees -- the primary quartet, the penguins, and a pair of monkeys hoping to attend a Tom Wolfe lecture so they can throw poo at him -- are soon recaptured and shipped off to a wildlife preserve in Kenya. But after the ship gets taken over by the penguins, the ensuing mishaps lead to Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria finding themselves stranded on the island of Madagascar, where the untamed environment starts to bring out the beast in Alex. Madagascar has earned a PG rating from the MPAA, and that’s certainly more warranted than the all-inclusive G rating animated flicks usually receive. While the climactic sequences involving Alex’s newfound bloodlust don’t match the intensity of numerous scenes from The Lion King (which somehow did cop a G), they’re still likely to cause uneasy seat-shifting by the youngest of tykes. Still, the primary reason to see Madagascar is to catch those penguins in all their waddling glory. Whether they’re plotting their great escape from Central Park Zoo or smacking around captive humans, they never fail to elicit huge roars of approval.


“Poignant” and “touching” aren’t words usually associated with a Jet Li flick, but Unleashed isn’t your standard action yarn. That’s not to say Li has completely gone the Sense and Sensibility route: Rest assured that fans of martial arts mayhem will leave satisfied with the degree of bone crushing, rib cracking and face pounding on display. But Li actually tries to give a multi-faceted performance in this one, successfully eliciting a sizable amount of sympathy in the role of Danny the Dog. Danny has spent his life in the service of a ruthless Glasgow mobster known as Uncle Bart (Bob Hoskins), who makes him sleep in a cage, feeds him scraps of food, and keeps him docile via a collar around his neck. But whenever Bart removes the collar (usually in the presence of deadbeats who owe him money), Danny turns into a savage beast who can pummel the opposition into submission. A chain of circumstances allows him to escape from his master; he falls in with a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman) and his teenage stepdaughter (Kerry Condon), who eventually accept him as one of the family. A handful of thrilling set pieces goose the proceedings, yet it’s the acting that provides this with an advantage: Freeman packs his usual authority, Condon is an absolute delight, and Hoskins clearly relishes the return to the UK underground milieu of his career-making films The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa.


Will Ferrell ably tackles his most complete role to date: He plays Phil Weston, a wimpy husband and father whose entire life has been spent in the shadow of his ultra-competitive dad Buck (Robert Duvall), a bullying jock who also happens to be the coach of the vicinity’s best boys’ soccer team. After his own son gets traded by Buck to the worst team in the league, Phil takes it upon himself to become the ragtag outfit’s new coach; he enlists ex-Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka (playing himself) as his assistant, learns thcoffee can provide a person with unlimited amounts of energy, and eventually becomes just as dictatorial on the field as his old man. Duvall, channeling huge chunks of his Bull Meechum characterization from The Great Santini, seems to have wandered in from a much more serious movie, and the usual sports flick cliches (right down the Climactic Big Game) are pretty much repeated verbatim. What elevates the movie is Ferrell himself: While his patented shtick can grow tiresome, here it’s in the service of an actual character, and that seems to make the difference.


The setting is 1930s Cornwall, as two elderly sisters (Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith) discover that a young man has washed up on the beach next to their quaint little cottage. As they nurse him back to health, one of the sisters (Dench’s Ursula) slowly begins to fall for this lad who’s approximately a half-century her junior; meanwhile, it emerges that this guest (who speaks no English) is a Polish violinist, and that a beautiful artist vacationing in the area (Natascha McElhone) might have both a personal and a professional interest in him. Although it looks like a product straight off the “Masterpiece Theatre” assembly line, Ladies In Lavender is a movie marked by major surprises: It’s surprising that the first half is so perceptive, and equally surprising that the second part is so preposterous.


Set during the Crusades, this dutiful slog through revisionist history stars Orlando Bloom as Balian, a tormented blacksmith (his wife committed suicide after the death of their child) who learns that his father (Liam Neeson) is a revered knight and decides to accompany him to Jerusalem. There, he finds himself in the middle of a growing feud between the Christians and the Muslims, both of whom lay claim to the holy city. Comparisons to recent sword flicks like Troy and Scott’s Gladiator are natural, but despite the lofty ambitions of William Monahan’s literate yet arid script, such contrasts do this lumbering movie no favors. If nothing else, at least those other films moved; beyond that, they also featured several morally ambiguous characters (as opposed to the cut-and-dry saints and sinners showcased here), handed juicy roles to vets like Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed (Kingdom’s name actors labor mightily in colorless parts), and, in the case of Troy, made a stronger case for contemporary relevance (even today, Christians are still bullying their way into the Middle East, but Kingdom is too timid to make many lacerating observations). As the courgeous Balian, Bloom has the heroic glower down pat but brings little else to the role.


It was only a matter of time before Douglas Adams’ cult phenomenon -- which had already moved from radio to print to television -- would eventually complete the journey by edging into cinema. Yet as a movie, H2G2 is only a mixed bag, crammed with many inspired bits but never coalescing as a whole. The picture gets off to a great start, as drab human Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) learns from his alien pal Ford Prefect (Mos Def) that Earth is about to be destroyed to make room for an intergalactic freeway. These early passages present the film at its finest: Reminiscent of both Monty Python and The Fifth Element, they embody a cheeky spirit that becomes harder to appreciate once the picture begins to buckle under the weight of an overly busy plot.