A giraffe in love with a hippo, a zebra with an identity crisis, a lion desperate to win his newfound daddy's respect - the makers of "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" could have plunked their heroes down in a therapist's office for an animals-with-issues session.
Instead, they maroon them on the African mainland for what amounts to more of the same: a shrill retread of the 2005 animated hit "Madagascar."
Voice stars Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith return, along with Sacha Baron Cohen and Cedric the Entertainer.
Operating on the principle that the bigger the menagerie, the merrier the movie, the filmmakers tack on fresh characters to the point of distraction, with the late Bernie Mac among the newcomers as dad to Stiller's Alex the lion.
Whether or not they've seen or remember the original flick, young kids will eat up this manic mess, a nonstop rush of slapstick and jabbering dialogue. The noise and mayhem will annoy, or at least bore, most parents, who can take some solace in the movie's brisk running time.
Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, who made the first movie, return to direct and co-write "Escape 2 Africa," with Etan Cohen sharing screenplay credit.
They keep the story simple, picking up where "Madagascar" left Alex and his fellow pampered zoo animals, Marty the zebra (Rock), Melman the giraffe (Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Pinkett Smith).
Still stranded in Madagascar, off the mainland coast, the foursome strap in to a derelict plane rebuilt by their pesky penguin comrades for the return to New York. The rickety contraption crashes on the plains of Africa, where Alex is reunited with his parents (Mac and Sherri Shepherd) from whom he was separated as a toddler after poachers captured him.
Alec Baldwin chimes in as a devious lion conniving to oust Mac as leader of the pride, while Cohen delivers another obnoxious vocal turn as lemur King Julien, with Cedric back as his flunky.
Co-director McGrath reprises his vocals for penguin boss Skipper, again eerily sounding like the ghost of Phil Hartman doing one of his voices for "The Simpsons." Singer will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas is a Barry White sound-alike as ladies man hippo.
To its credit, "Escape 2 Africa" does maintain a distinct visual style amid today's animation overload of cookie-cutter critters that blend together from one movie to the next. The landscapes are vast and vivid, while the geometric shapes that go into the characters' design lend them a distinct look.
With so many characters to cram in and not much for many of them to do, "Escape 2 Africa" ends up a choppy, episodic affair.
The main players all have their own little subplots: Alex aiming to prove himself to papa, Marty trying to find his individuality among a herd of indistinguishable zebras, Gloria looking for love and Melman desperate to show that he's the man for her, despite their extreme genetic differences.
Giraffe-hippo romance aside, there's nothing remotely challenging - or for the most part, interesting - about any of this. Children who were big fans of the first movie just three years ago may have long since outgrown the superficiality served up in the sequel.
- David Germain