I didn't think much of Madagascar, which had an unfocused story, no internal logic, and only a few laughs, scattered mostly among the minor characters. It relied too much on pop-culture references, too, a common problem these days in animation. So I'm glad to report that the sequel, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, is an improvement. The story has a clear protagonist (instead of the lion and zebra battling for screen time), it's a bit more straightforward, and the movie references are all but gone. It's still primarily the supporting cast that's funny, not the leads -- but hey, if Dreamworks were capable of doing everything right it would have to change its name to Pixar.

The sequel, again directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, finds our heroes having repaired a dilapidated airplane and now preparing to fly themselves back to New York. But instead, they crash-land not far from the island of Madagascar: on the continent of Africa, in fact, and in the very animal preserve where Alex the lion (voice of Ben Stiller) was born. He is joyfully reunited with his parents (Bernie Mac and Sherri Shepherd), and his friends are thrilled with their ancestral homeland, too. Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) is able to run with a herd for the first time, Melman (David Schwimmer) finds his hypochondria to be a hit with his fellow giraffes, and Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) loves that with hippos, fat equals attractive.
Alex's problem is that he's never actually tried to be a real lion before, having lived most of his life in a zoo as a performer. His family's pride is easily overtaken by Makunga (Alec Baldwin), a swaggering alpha male with a ridiculously pompadoured mane. Meanwhile, Melman's forbidden love for Gloria (I'm pretty sure a giraffe-hippo coupling violates the laws of God) continues to weigh upon him, especially as she is wooed by a sexy (i.e., obese) hippo male (Will i Am, who loves her humps, her humps, her lovely lady lumps). As for Marty, running with a herd? Not all it's cracked up to be.

All of this is modestly entertaining, but it seems that when the film sticks to its central stories, it can't find a good comedic groove. It also assumes the audience has greater affection for the main characters than is warranted. A lot of people saw Madagascar, but didn't anyone LOVE it? Are Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria iconic characters that we instantly sympathize with when the sequel commences? "Escape 2 Africa" sure thinks so.

The real laughs are with the insane penguins, who crash-landed with the others and are using chimpanzee labor to repair the plane. (Those opposable thumbs are crucial, you know.) King Julien of the lemurs (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his doubting assistant Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer) are good for some chuckles, too -- again, not as part of the main story, but as a sidebar. Julien's reckless ideas about volcano-based sacrifices to appease water gods are particularly funny.

With the first Madagascar, the best thing I could say about it was that the kids in the theater seemed to like it. That wasn't much of an endorsement; kids like anything that has bright colors and talking animals. This time, I can say that I enjoyed it, too. It's smarter, gentler, and funnier than its predecessor. At this rate of improvement, maybe Madagascar: 4 the Birds will be grade-A material.