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Like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," Alex the lion longs for home. But he cannot click his paws and magically return to the Central Park Zoo -- otherwise there would have been no second and, now, third "Madagascar."
It's a fast and furious animated adventure, with a pace that seems sped up, even more celebrity voices as animals and humans, and a door swinging wide open for a possible fourth film if "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" does well.
The story opens in Africa as the penguins fly off to Monte Carlo on the only working aircraft in sight, leaving the zoo refugees on their own.
The foursome -- Alex (voice of Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) -- make their way to the French Riviera with plans to grab the penguins from the casino and force them to transport them to New York in the monkey-powered super-plane.
But this turns out to be an impossible mission as they crash-land into the casino and attract the attention, and screams, of gamblers and animal-control officer Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand). Her idea of wildlife control, particularly when it comes to the king of the jungle, is to try to capture Alex and add his head to her trophy wall.
To escape from this human bloodhound -- she actually sniffs the ground like a dog with a sensitive snout -- and the police, the Zoosters pretend to be circus animals. They escape with Circus Zaragoza but discover that the traveling troupe, led by testy tiger Vitaly (voice of Bryan Cranston), is none too happy with the newcomers.
Stefano, an Italian sea lion with the voice of Martin Short, and Gia, an exotic Italian jaguar voiced by Jessica Chastain, are more welcoming, but Alex and the others may have to make good on their claims to be circus folk if they hope to get home or simply survive.
"Madagascar 3" is the first of the series to be in 3-D and it makes the European backgrounds pop, but it's probably not necessary given the nonstop stream of action.
In fact, there's so much going on that you almost don't need the obsessive, sometimes off-putting animal-control officer, although she propels the story to its conclusion and (for the adults) sings the Edith Piaf song, "Non, je ne regrette rien," as if she were belting it out on Broadway.
In the end, nothing is more fun than Rock's "Afro Circus," which gets a mash-up with returning favorite "I Like to Move It."
Maybe it's the filmmakers' lucky charm, but as in the 2005 adventure that launched the franchise, there are wisecracks about cheap pharmaceuticals in Canada, along with a joke about the work-vacation ratio. Huh?
Perhaps that's the result of having a trio of directors -- original duo Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath plus Conrad Vernon -- and a pair of writers in Darnell and Noah Baumbach. The latter co-scripted "Fantastic Mr. Fox," but also more adult fare such as "Greenberg" and "Margot at the Wedding."
This installment's weird moments involve the lemur king and a female bear. Putting aside the whole cross-species attraction, why doesn't the bear talk when all of the other animals do?
"Madagascar 3" can never recapture the novelty of the first or the glory of Africa in the second, but the circus rehearsals and performances provide visual panache and remind us that in the world of animation, anything is possible. As usual, there are lessons to be learned, in this case about home, passion, what it means to "be circus."
And how if two movies have made more than $1.1 billion, there will be a third and possibly a fourth. Monkey-powered super-plane or not.
Rating: PG for some mild action and rude humor.
(Email movie editor Barbara Vancheri at bvancheri(at)post-gazette.com. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.)