Has hand-drawn animation gone the way of silent movies?

Hardworking nerds have spent the past decade and a half developing computer code that stunningly simulates movement, facial expressions, lighting, fabric textures and the physics of long hair and fur. Their goal: to make the unreal (living toys, monsters, ogres, etc.) look real.

The producers of "Madagascar," DreamWorks Animation's latest computer-generated project, announced they were taking their visuals back to the classic era of cartoons, paying homage to the frenetic goofiness of Tex Avery and other animation icons from the 1950s.

In that respect, they succeeded. The movie's Web site explains in detail how their programmers developed new controls that would allow them to "squash and stretch" their characters to the limits of recognizability and still keep them believable.

But ... can't you do that with pen and paper?

Sure, "Madagascar" is funny, but jokes and stunts involving zoo animals with zany expressions work just as well in 2-D. The characters here are so cartoonishly stylized that they look more like the "rough" computer models you see in the "behind the scenes" outtakes of other CG movies - blocky geometric representations of the unfinished characters.

Maybe in my advanced age, I've just become blind to the simple joy of watching silly cartoons. To help me objectively judge "Madagascar," I enlisted the aid of a local Brownie troop and some of their siblings.

Jessica Barber and Hannah Graham, both 6, collaborated on this synopsis of the plot:

"A zebra tries to get out of the zoo and go to the wild." He and his friends from the Central Park Zoo "get lost and fall into the water" off a ship bound for Kenya. "They get washed up onto an island. The zebra and the other guys like it, not the lion."

Chris Rock gives voice to Marty the zebra, who pines for a natural habitat. Ben Stiller is Alex the lion, in his element grandstanding for the public and noshing on a custom-prepared steak, then retiring to his heated cave. Petite Jada Pinkett-Smith plays the portly and level-headed Gloria the hippo, and David Schwimmer is the voice of Melman the giraffe, a germophobic hypochondriac (a personality trait that was completely lost on the younger viewers).

Instead of the well-organized wildlife preserve they were headed for, the quartet find that the population of their new home, Madagascar, consists of thousands of loopy lemurs, led by the supremely silly King Julien (British comic Sacha Baron Cohen), and the lemurs' natural enemies, the ravenous "foosa." (I had to look this up: Fossa are carnivorous mammals related to the mongoose and only found on Madagascar. You learn something new every day.)

What appealed to the 10-and-younger set the most? "The lemurs," they chorused as Julia Strecker, 7, led them in a conga line down the aisle and out of the theater, copying the freestyle antics of King Julien. "The part where he (Alex the lion) got shot," said Maddy Sutton, 8, referring to his hallucinatory trip on tranquilizers. "Where the lion bit the zebra's butt!" laughed Belle Sutton, 5. The central plot involves Alex finally giving in to his natural instincts and unwittingly becoming a threat to his vegetarian friends.

Their brother Nathan, 10, proclaimed this movie "better than Disney." Disney movies don't have as many songs, he explained. Indeed, the ending credits listed probably 20 recognizable tunes, mostly theme songs to other movies or TV shows, purloined for gags aimed at older audience members.

Was there anything they didn't like? "The bad words," noted Jessica. It's true; as in DreamWorks' previous features, "Shark Tale" and the two "Shrek" movies, the writers scramble for laughs wherever they can get them, and they don't always stay safely in G-rated territory.

If your taste in comedy runs toward the eternal conflict between cats and dogs, or lovestruck wolves in zoot suits, you'll have a ball at "Madagascar." For the rest of us, all we see is a gargantuan waste of programming time.

"Madagascar"

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

Starring: Voices of Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, Jada Pinkett Smith, David Schwimmer, Sacha Baron Cohen

Directed by: Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath

Length: One hour 20 minutes

Now playing at: Astoria Gateway Cinemas, Cannes Cinema Center in Seaside, Neptune Theatre in Long Beach, Wash.

Short take: A quartet of pampered zoo animals find themselves marooned in the wilds of Madagascar. Sure, it's funny - the king of the lemurs is a riot. But the sophisticated digital animation is wasted on cartoony visuals that would have worked just as well in 2-D.

Rating: Two and a half stars (out of four)

Movie trivia: What other female celebrities were considered for the voice of Gloria the hippo?

Answer: Madonna, Jennifer Lopez and Gwen Stefani were all considered for the voice of Gloria before Jada Pinkett Smith signed on.

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