Review: Third time's the charm for 'Madagascar' gang

Alex the Lion (voice of Ben Stiller) and Gia the Jaguar (voiced by Jessica Chastain) are fearless trapeze artists in "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted."

Photo by Photo credit: Courtesy of DreamW, MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE'S MOST WANTED © 2012 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Alex the Lion (voice of Ben Stiller) and Gia the Jaguar (voiced by Jessica Chastain) are fearless trapeze artists in "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted."

Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Gloria the Hippo, and Melman the Giraffe are still fighting to get home to their beloved Big Apple and ...

Rating: PG for some mild action and rude humor

Length: 93 minutes

Released: June 8, 2012 Nationwide

Cast: Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen

Director: Eric Darnell, Conrad Vernon

Writer: Eric Darnell, Noah Baumbach

More info and showtimes »

"Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" is one of the fanciest, most carefully assembled cartoons ever put on the screen. The jokes come so fast they're nearly subliminal. Plot points whiz by and when things threaten to blur, there's a crazy musical number or a tightly worked out physical comedy routine involving a hippo or a penguin. Then it's back on the bullet train. Your brain goes breathless and giddy struggling to keep up.

Like "Madagascar 2," this one begins right where the previous story left off. Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and the rest of the refugees from the Central Park Zoo are still stranded in Africa and yearning to get back where they belong. The rickety monkey-built plane from the last installment achieves liftoff, but the avaricious penguins and vainglorious King Julien the lemur (Sacha Baron Cohen) are, as usual, infuriating double-crossers, and our heroes are left to their own devices.

With faultless cartoon logic, the menagerie scuba-dives to Monaco, where they make a shambles of the famed casino. With animal control officer Capt. Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand) in hot pursuit, they hide in a traveling circus, meeting new characters including Vitaly (Bryan Cranston), a growling, heavy-souled Siberian tiger.

As the circus tours Rome and London, the film has plenty of broad fun with European stereotypes. Capt. DuBois is the mirror image of the ineffectual gendarme, pursuing the runaway animals with ninja-like agility and tenacity a Terminator would admire. She's still French to the core, though, breaking into an extended Edith Piaf routine that will tickle kids even if they don't get the context.

Gia (Jessica Chastain), a flirtatious leopard with eyes for Alex, is a wonderful new addition. She's a very sensuous, nubile feline. After some kittenish shenanigans, he impatiently asks her, "Are you 5?" She replies, "Yes," leaving us in the audience to do swift mental calculations from cat years to human to assure ourselves she's not underage. Then you realize you're fretting over moral peril to a cat. A cartoon cat.

A circus contract that could being the animals back to America sets up the finale, a whirligig spectacle of acrobatic teamwork to the tune of Katy Perry's "Firework" that ends the movie on a delirious high note. This one is almost too good to leave to the children.

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