‘Madagascar 3’: Fur power

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Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

2.5 out of 4 stars

93 minutes

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

We’ve all been subjected to something touted as the greatest show on earth that turns out to be hardly anything beyond a dog and pony act.

But, if you believe in the magic of performance, you keep filling those seats and hoping for a little something special. And, yes, that finally happens for the characters of “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.”

In their quest to return from the island of Madagascar to their home at New York City’s Central Park Zoo, animal quartet Alex, Marty, Gloria and Melman (voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith, David Schwimmer) still have some distance to go.

Marooned in Africa by their penguin friends, the lion, zebra, hippopotamus and giraffe, as well as the tagalong trio of lemurs (Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter), take matters into their own paws and hooves by tracking down the flightless birds to Monte Carlo so they can at last get a flight back across the Atlantic.

But, as the usual pandemonium ensues, their transportation is wrecked, forcing them to hop a circus train making its way across Europe.

The change in plans is but a minor hitch once the gang figures out a way to take the big top to the United States, but they still must contend with a French animal control officer (Frances McDormand) who will stop at nothing to complete her collection of prized animal heads, needing only a lion mane to round out her set.

Voicing the most sensible animal of the bunch, Stiller has a whole new cluster of zany zoological types to babysit, but the biggest challenge still comes from keeping his best friend under control.

Yes, even the level-headed leo can’t contain the boundless energy that is Marty the zebra, whose idea of laying low includes painting himself like a party clown, donning a rainbow wig and dancing around without a care in the world.

You may not love Rock’s approach to the voice, but at least you get plenty of it.

Pinkett Smith and Schwimmer have less of a role to play this time, though their hippo/giraffe love story looks a lot more interesting on the tightrope.

Actually, it looks more like the number 10 when you see them standing together.

They’re not the only ones celebrating amoré, as Baron Cohen’s heavily-inflected King Julien — the best part of all the “Madagascar” movies — finds his soul mate in a tricycle-riding bear (Frank Welker) named Sonya.

For some folks, weighing 800 pounds and having the ability to swallow you in one bite with a daily helping of fish heads must be a turn-on.

Other circus beasts are friendlier, like Stefano (Martin Short), a dopey Italian sea lion and Gia (Jessica Chastain), a jaguar with a dream of taking to the trapeze, but certainly not the hot-headed Vitaly the tiger (Bryan Cranston), who traded in his famous hoop-jumping title for a knife-throwing act. But, furry, finned, or otherwise, they’re all the same to Capt.

Chantale DuBois, with McDormand hilarious as the single-minded woman who only stops in her pursuit of prey to touch up her lipstick.

It’s nice to see a human being in the “Madagascar” world who doesn’t just run in terror when they see a pack of marauding animals headed their way — even if it is someone who has a puppy head mounted on her office wall — but it’s still all about the four-legged ones here, as it should be.

Alex and company, along with the penguins, lemurs and the whole kit and caboodle, have been some of the least lovable animated characters to come out of DreamWorks Animation’s surge of successes.

Popular? Sure. Funny? OK, yes, to some degree.

Even so, they touch your heart far less than the heroes of “Kung Fu Panda” or “How to Train Your Dragon” and become annoying fast, especially Marty.

What they have going for them in their third movie, besides a cadre of fresh voices, is that forgiving element of the circus.

You can put on 99 bad performances, but if the 100th is a hit, you can keep right on going from there.

Once they take over this traveling show and get everything tuned to what modern audiences want — Alex is nothing if not a showman — it becomes a visual phantasmagoria, infinitely better in its presentation than either of the first two movies and simply much more fun.

All right, it may not have the staying power of something like “Dumbo,” but “Madagascar 3” is the entry in the franchise where people will note DreamWorks got it right.

Sure, they’ll probably push their luck and come out with a fourth, but if the end credits music — wherein Marty’s unbearable calliope impression is mixed with Julien’s infectious rendition of the dance song “I Like to Move It” — is any indication, at least they’re learning to tone down the craziness.

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