November 07, 2008

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

Live from Kenya - the Obama victory celebration roars on

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

Grade: C

Director: Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath

Starring the voices of: Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Bernie Mac, and Alec Baldwin

MPAA Rating: PG

Running Time: 1 hour, 29 minutes

Soul Men

Grade: B –

Director: Malcolm B. Lee

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Bernie Mac, Sharon Leal, Adam Herschman, Sean Hayes, and Affion Crockett

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hour, 43 minutes

There are few coincidences when it comes to Hollywood marketing. What are the chances that two of the late comedian Bernie Mac’s final film projects would be released into theaters on the same day merely 3 months since his untimely death? Still, in the doldrums of this pre-awards season, it is worth taking time to pay tribute to an underrated talent cut down while his acting abilities were still evolving.

The problem with Samuel L. Jackson’s outsized onscreen persona is that it usually dwarfs his costars, leaving little room for them to coexist in a film to which Jackson is either unwilling or incapable to modulate. Such is not an issue in the buddy road comedy Soul Men when Jackson meets his physical and spiritual match in the loquacious, brash Mac. The two play Louis Hinds (Jackson) and Floyd Henderson (Mac), former backup singers in a 1960s R&B trio who became estranged after their lead singer left for a successful solo career. After their ex-partner dies, Hinds and Henderson call an uneasy truce and embark on a cross-country road trip to a tribute concert in Harlem’s Apollo Theater.

The middling storyline hinges on a Blues Brothers framework that includes visiting Arizona dives and Texas saloons, coping with familial strife, and a final performance with the police waiting offstage to arrest the duo for sundry misdeeds. The musical numbers, for which the actors supply their own vocals, are pedestrian and derivative at best. But, Mac and Jackson paint in profanity with the same virtuosity some artists work in water colors, and together they form an irreverent chemistry. The result is a satisfying mix of hilarity and melancholy, the latter fueled by the reality that Mac and Isaac Hayes, who makes a cameo, did not live to see this film’s release.

While Mac voices a lion king in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, he is not the reason anyone will or will not see this PG-rated kids’ film. The best thing that can be said about this sequel to the popular 2005 animated original is that it will entertain youngsters under the age of 10. Of course, the same can be said about an animatronic jug band at Chuck E. Cheese’s, which might, come to think of it, rival the second Madagascar in plot depth and originality.

An ill-fated attempt to finally return home to New York City by the franchise’s quartet of zoo escapees – Alex and dancing Lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer, emerging from exile) and Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) – literally crash lands in the African plains. There, Gloria and Melman discover love, Marty discovers he is part of a like-minded herd, and Alex discovers his long-lost parents (Mac and Sherri Shepard). From there, it is onto a pale takeoff of “The Lion King,” as Simba…er, Alex competes to succeed his father against the dastardly Scar…er, Makunga (Alec Baldwin).

For kids, all the plotting merely passes time between “moving it” with Sacha Baron Cohen’s hyperactive, self-assured lemur Julien. For every one else, only the return of those sardonic penguins provides any genuine chuckles.

Neil Morris

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