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Animals inspire laughs for whole family in 'Madagascar 2'
Melman the giraffe, voiced by David Schwimmer; Gloria the hippo, voiced by Jada Pinkett Smith; Alex the lion, voiced by Ben Stiller; and Marty the zebra voiced by Chris Rock, star in "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa."

‘Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa’

Starring the voices of: Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith

Rated: PG for mild language, crude humor and some thematic elements

Running time: 86 minutes

Bottom line: Simply hilarious

Lions and zebras and hippos and giraffes. Oh my!

The freedom-seeking gang of New York City Zoo animals is back, and this sequel to "Madagascar" offers a better story and more laughs than the original.

Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) are still stranded in Madagascar. Good thing the penguins are there to rebuild an airplane and fly everyone, including Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer), back to America.

Until the plane promptly crashes in Africa. This setback not only sets up the next adventure, but it also reunites Alex with his parents (Bernie Mac and Sherri Shepherd), who are the king and queen of the lions. Borrowing a bit from "The Lion King," a rival to the throne named Makunga (Alex Baldwin) tricks Alex into failing a rite of passage. This forces Alex’s father to banish him, paving the way for Makunga to usurp the throne. Father and son issues commence.

Meanwhile, Marty struggles with no longer being unique, Melman becomes a doctor, Gloria falls for a playa hippo, Julien is his delusional self and the penguins steal the movie. Again.

Despite all of these intertwining plots, "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" focuses on its main characters more than the first, and Julien doesn’t hijack the show.

If anyone detracts from the stars, it’s the penguins. How irresistible are those brilliant, deviant, endlessly confident birds? They formulate absurdly intricate schemes, hijack tourist jeeps in the middle of the savanna and create a helicopter from the spare parts. All the while tossing off one-liners with machismo that would make Lee Marvin proud.

The elderly woman who beats up Alex in Union Station in the first film also has a much bigger role here, and the filmmakers mine her character for every possible ounce of irony and slapstick.

"Madagascar 2" begins a kind of memorial tour for the late Bernie Mac. He also co-stars in this week’s "Soul Men," worked on two forthcoming television projects, and will make his final film appearance in next year’s "Old Dogs." His voice work here reminds us how much we’ll miss him.

"Madagascar 2" is being released to both IMAX and standard format theaters. IMAX is always a tad spectacular, but it doesn’t add enough to this movie to justify the higher ticket prices. The kids in the audience seemed as impressed by the green band for the preview trailer as they were by the actual movie on its super-sized scale.

Speaking of the young ’uns, "Madagascar 2" definitely skews toward grade-schoolers and older. Like the first "Madagascar," some content may be a little rough for the preschoolers.

It’s the same brand of comedy we expect from DreamWorks, the producers of the "Shrek" movies and "Shark Tale."

"Madagascar 2" is closest in tone and content to the first "Shrek." It’s witty and sincere with healthy doses of physical comedy and pop culture thrown in, but it isn’t as cynical as the Shrek sequels.

It’s a movie packed with characters we love, fast-paced storytelling and as many belly laughs as any family movie this year. Go see it.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.