Much as I love the idea of Santa with his “a little round belly /That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly” and his eight magical reindeer and delivering all those presents around the world with seamless efficiency and jollity, there is something a little creepy about they guy.
He breaks into houses with regular monotony every Christmas Eve (see “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore), he has songs about him which actually serve as terrifying warnings – “You better watch out / You better not cry / You better not pout / I’m telling you why /Santa Claus is coming to town” (“Santa Claus is Coming to Town”) and then there’s that whole invasive naughty and nice list he has going on.
Sure, it’s bundled up with “HO! HO! HO!’s” and a sunny side up disposition that makes fervent life coaches look like Eeyore on a bad day (when he is, it must be said, still adorable) but still …
Merry Madagascar, released back in 2009 and drawing on the lead and supporting characters from Dreamworks’ successful Madagascar series of films about about four animals – Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) – trying to get away and then back to their zoo in New York City, has a whole lot of fun with the idea of Santa as a misunderstood creepy figure while still managing to be manically festive into the bargain.
In this case, Santa is known as the Red-Eyed Goblin by King Julien (Danny Jacobs) who isn’t aware that the bright glowing red sonic boom that comes to Madagascar every year is actually Christmas’s most beloved secular figure and that the rocks being thrown at him, in what the lemurs see as an act of bewilderingly aggressive action, is actually coal because Julien is actually a whole lot of selfish.
Egged on by Julien, Alex et. al who have just had their balloon ride back to NYC destroyed by the lemurs mistaking them for the Red-Eyed Goblin (not such an inaccurate name when you think about it), take down the skybound threat only to find out they have taken down Santa.
Yep, Santa is earthbound, he has amnesia and doesn’t know he’s Santa (he can still make wooden toys from nothing so there’s that) and the zoo gang are the ones responsible; well, them and Julien and his manic followers who are perpetually high on, admittedly funny, cult-like paranoia.
You thus, have the set-up for a classic Santa’s out of commission, we have to save Christmas scenario which renders Merry Madagascar as so much been-there-done-that, narratively at least.
But it’s what this 28-minute piece of festively warmhearted anarchy does with this old and tired idea that makes it’s so damn entertaining to watch.
There are visual jokes and quips galore, most of them coming via Julien who has an annual festival named Julianuary where he gets all the gifts and no one else does – cue Santa helping him to see that giving can feel pretty good too; joyously, that doesn’t quite go the saccharine sweet way you might expect – and the penguins – Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Private (Christoper Knights) and Rico (Conrad Vernon) – who as South POle residents have a real beef with the North Polers aka the reindeer since they enticed Santa North years back, leaving lingering southern resentment in their wake.
The scenes between the reindeer and the penguins are an hilarious piece of inspired silliness, adding new lore to the Christmas story but also giving us a Romeo and Juliet moment when Private falls head over heels for Cupid the Reindeer (Nina Dobrev) but cannot act on it since the penguins must help Alex, Marty, Gloria and Melman to get all the toys delivered on Christmas eve.
As you might expect with a Christmas special that is all pedal to the metal pretty much all the time, with jokes, story and visual colourfulness turned up to the festive max, the delivery of the presents goes well but without a mass of comical mishaps, with the standout being when the animals demolish the side of a house and a hyperactively excited young girl, Abby (Willow Smith) is so excited she can barely contain herself.
But even here there are some extra jokes to be had with the gang returning to Madagascar – quite why they come back when they’re on a magical fairy-dust sleigh that could take them home is all very self-sacrificial Gilligan’s Island Christmassy loveliness which a special like this all but demands – and finding out from a memory-recovered Santa Claus that they have forgotten to go to Liechtenstein!
Not again – poor Liechtenstein!
To be fair Merry Madagascar is not the most sophisticated piece of festive animation to ever come down the pike with a story more devoted to the franchise’s trademark comic mania than anything else, but overall it works an hilarious treat, reinforcing the idea of Christmas as a time of giving, selflessness and yes, rampant materialism, with all the characters we have to know and love from the series going characteristically all out to rescue the biggest night of the year and keep all the boys and the girls, and now lemurs, happy as someone consuming a glass of good (not bad) eggnog.