The animals at the Central Park Zoo appear to have a bad gig.
They are stuck in the middle of America's most overcrowded city, surrounded by skyscrapers that block out the sun and stars. Instead of frolicking in grasslands and splashing in waterfalls, they are bombarded by the noises of street traffic and drunk Yankees fans.
But that's not quite the case for the animated creatures in "Madagascar."
From the perspective of these Central Park Zoo residents, they're living the good life. Patrons adore them, and they're constantly pampered by the staff.
That is until Marty the zebra celebrates his 10th birthday and begins to wonder if there is something more to this privileged existence.
"Doesn't it bother you guys you don't know anything about life outside the zoo?," Marty (voiced by Chris Rock) asks his fellow captives.
Before long, the zebra goes AWOL, and his friends -- Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) -- must chase him through Manhattan.
This brief breakout brings undue attention to their confined conditions, thus compelling the facility to ship Marty and the gang back to the wild. But after some mishaps along the way, they find themselves marooned on Madagascar -- although they believe it to be the San Diego Zoo.
The narcissistic Alex comments, "Now we'll have to compete with Shamu and his smug little grin."
Soon, the beasts' natural behavior starts to materialize -- just one of the four isn't a herbivore -- and they're forced to deal with the realities of taking a walk on the wild side.
The silly, good-natured "Madagascar" is a significant improvement over DreamWorks' previous animated effort, "Shark Tale."
The celebrity voices and multiple pop culture references remain pervasive (ranging from clever riffs on "American Beauty" to "Planet of the Apes"), but they're not as suffocating. Despite the trappings of modern animated projects, this movie understands it's still a character comedy.
While the agitated Stiller, fast-talking Rock and mopey Schwimmer rely on their familiar shtick, they play it straight and never step out of character. (It would have been easy for Rock to slip into stand-up mode a la Robin Williams in "Robots.")
"Madagascar" scores even more points with several of its supporting roles, which range from the amusing to the just plain freakish.
The penguins at the Central Park Zoo are depicted as a paramilitary organization whose talents at espionage help them hatch a plan of escape en route to Antarctica. The sight of them aggressively commandeering a freighter is certainly unusual.
But the real standout is King Julien, the loopy leader of the lemur tribe who adopts the four stragglers as a means to protect his brood from other predators. Julien is voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen, the obnoxious genius behind "Da Ali G Show," in which he creates the persona of a faux famous hipster whose clueless questions generate all kinds of confused responses from his guests.
In his trademark non-specific accent (part French-Canadian and part Indian?), Cohen portrays the lemur king as an aloof party boy who views the jungle as a setting for his own nonstop rave, despite the fact most of the other creatures there want to "tear off our limbs."
As Marty the zebra says, "You don't see that on Animal Planet."