What made DreamWorks Animation’s original Shrek such a monster hit was due to the cultural moment it was released and its brand of comedy. The film heavily banked on lampooning fairy tale tropes that audiences had become numb to by the end of the Disney renaissance decade. It also skewed toward an older audience by having more innuendo and adult language than most mainstream Hollywood animated fare was permitted to have by 2001. In short, Shrek‘s roguish image as not your typical cartoon fairy tale cemented DreamWorks Animation as an anti-Disney counterculture for the new millennium, and audiences took notice. Shrek’s success netted the green ogre and his friends the inaugural Best Animated Feature Academy Award, a franchise life beyond the movie, and granted DreamWorks Animation the momentum to grow as a studio. Despite the eventual cultural burnout, the Shrek phenomenon changed the face of mainstream animation and painted a portrait of what to expect from the then-burgeoning animation studio. But if Shrek invented the DreamWorks comedy, 2005’s Madagascar perfected it.
After a decade of sequels and spin-offs, the popularity of the Shrek name began to dwindle in the 2010’s. On top of the lackluster reception to Shrek the Third and Shrek Forever After, the films’ brand of meta-fairy tale humor had begun to lose its novelty once it became an overplayed trend in and of itself among family film imitators like Happily N’ever After, Hoodwinked and even Disney’s own self-parody, Enchanted. Meanwhile, Madagascar kickstarted what would become DreamWorks’ second blockbuster franchise and follows a team of city-slicker zoo animals’ transcontinental journey to return to New York City’s Central Park. Across the films and various spin-offs, the series pits its wise-cracking zoo crew in globetrotting misadventures that bring out their wild side and test their friendship. Where the Madagascar trilogy stampedes over the Shrek films is in how it tells a more cohesive overarching story with comedy that is less reliant on being countercultural and more focused on the relationships and reactions of its characters.
Where Shrek’s comedy was dependent on a particular angle of parody of a specific cultural genre, Madagascar draws its own humor from the situations it places its fish-out-of-water characters and how they respond to them, making it more universal. Alex (Ben Stiller), Marty (Chris Rock), Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith), and Melman (David Schwimmer) are portrayed as true-blood New Yorkers and each film takes them out of their comfort element of the American urban jungle and plops them into the wilderness of the titular island, the planes of the African savannah, and even the streets of Europe. The culture clash of hardnosed American personalities navigating a foreign land is reminiscent of travel road trip comedies like The Hangover Part II or National Lampoon’s European Vacation, but the comedic irony of Madagascar is how it depicts overly domesticated zoo animals out of captivity for the first time as if they were helpless tourists. Alex is a lion who’s never hunted for his own meat before and Melman is a giraffe who can’t live without western medicine. Although they are animals that mother nature evolved to survive in the wild, they are all too human to be able to live in it, no matter where the films take them.
The Shrek films follow the titular ogre’s gradual path to becoming a family man, but the Madagascar series uses each installment as means to reach a definitive and conclusive end to the story. Apart from Shrek and Fiona’s status as a royal couple and family, the events of each Shrek sequel, particularly Shrek the Third and Shrek Forever After, have little effect on each other as the series was more so built around aimlessly chronicling the life and times of Shrek and his family. The Madagascar series functions better as a multi-film narrative as each entry picks up exactly where the plot and consequences of the previous one left off in the overarching story of returning home. Returning to New York is the momentum behind each film’s story and how the characters act on wanting to achieve it. The first film establishes the conflict in washing them up on a remote island, the second film explores the characters’ growth by having them learn to flourish in the wilds of Africa, and the third film resolves the arc by returning them to their zoo, changed by what they had experienced to get there. The Shrek films can largely be viewed in isolation as their own narratives, but the Madagascar series builds itself on the road it takes from its start to its finale.
Madagascar also builds its comedy around its animation more than Shrek does. Shrek bases the design, physics, and animation of its characters in a more believable reality to support the dialogue-intensive nature of its story and comedy. Madagascar is unapologetically an animated cartoon. The characters are designed as anthropomorphic animal caricatures with stylistically geometric anatomies to support exaggerated modes of expression and cartoony physical comedy. Before the likes of Hotel Transylvania or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the Madagascar films blended highly rendered computer graphics with classic hand drawn sensibilities of squash-and-stretch animation and over-the-top facial expressions. The speed at which characters change expressions and poses ensures that the animation alone elicits as much of a laugh from the audience as the dialogue. If Shrek succeeds at being a general comedy, Madagascar is an overtly animated comedy.
DreamWorks Animation was born out of founder Jeffery Katzenberg leaving the Walt Disney Company in 1994 on sour terms. This was reflected in Shrek’s explicit jabs at the Mouse House and would largely define the identity of Shrek’s life as a franchise that identified as an untraditional fairy tale. Madagascar helped define the studio’s identity outside of being overtly anti-Disney. The Madagascar films served as a better forerunner and active example of DreamWorks’ brand of contemporary animated storytelling than its Oscar-winning originator. Madagascar grew along with its characters across each installment to deliver animated comedies that were visually engaging and universally entertaining.
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Why Madagascar Is Better Than Shrek