Madagascar. Dir. Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath. DreamWorks. 2005.


Opening in Central Park Zoo, Madagascar follows the lives of Alex the lion, Marty the zebra, Melman the giraffe and Gloria the hippopotamus. The film explores the ideas which these domesticated animals have concerning their captivity and the great unknown ‘wild’. Marty, who longs for freedom and the open space which he believes the wild will offer him, decides to break out of the zoo and head for Connecticut, where he believes he will discover the wild. However, being a domestic animal, Marty’s distinctions between human and animal characteristics are blurred, and so he heads for Grand Central Station, and a train to the wild! Concerned for their friend, Alex, Melman and Gloria pursue Marty, so as to bring him back to the safety of the zoo. The quartet is thwarted by local animal control police who detain them and ship them off to a wildlife reserve. Accompanied by some pesky penguins also determined to find freedom, the four animals embark on their boat trip to a wildlife reserve. However, the penguins’ scheming and plotting against the humans leads to the overthrowing of the crew of the ship. This change in authority leads to a very badly driven boat, and hence the animals are cast into the sea and marooned on the island of Madagascar. They are revered, respected and ultimately befriended by the group of Lemurs native to the island, and each embark on their own voyage of discovery as they acclimatise to life on the island.


Tim Dirks states that genres ‘are various forms or identifiable types, categories, classifications or groups of films that are recurring and have similar, familiar or instantly-recognizable patterns, syntax, filmic techniques or conventions – that include one or more of the following: settings (and props), content and subject matter, themes, mood, period, plot, central narrative events, motifs, styles, structures, situations, recurring icons (e.g., six-guns and ten-gallon hats in Westerns), stock characters (or characterizations), and stars. Many films are considered hybrids – they straddle several film genres.’ [1]

Madagascar is a feature-length animated film. The medium of animation allows for many different genres to be used within a film, and Madagascar in particular has elements of family film, adventure film and slapstick comedy. The use of animation allows for the slapstick to be shown through the exaggeration and caricature which is used to develop the characterization of our four protagonists.

Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria all embark on both a literal and emotional voyage within Madagascar. Their respective personal voyages of discovery are linked with their exploration of the different environments encountered in both captivity and the wild. The audience are placed alongside our characters, encouraging them to challenge and explore their own views about the domesticity of wild animals and the ethical concerns which can be raised. All of these factors contribute to the genre of the film as an adventure film, as the various forms of journey undertaken highlight, literally and subliminally, a thirst for greater knowledge and discovery: ‘Adventure films are exciting stories, with new experiences or exotic locales’ [2].

The medium of animation reaches a wide audience of varying ages and attitudes, as the use of animation can enable the subliminal exploration of societal and political issues whilst displaying an aesthetically pleasing production for a younger audience. This is important within Madagascar as the film makes comment on the societal exploitation of wild animals without deviating from the hybrid genre of family adventure comedy. Elements of comedy are crucial within the film for the flow of the narrative and to ensure a wide audience is targeted. The character of King Julien XIII, the ‘King’ of the lemurs, generates much of the comedic elements of the film, which maintains the light-hearted tone typical of a family film.

Animals’ cinematic and narrative importance

Animals are integral to the narrative and plot development throughout Madagascar.  Darnell and McGrath use anthropomorphism within their animal protagonists so as to make them relatable to a human audience, generating a response from the audience which is critical of human society and the domestication and captivity of ‘wild’ animals. In Paul Wells’ The Animated Bestiary Wells explores the idea of wildness. He states that ‘the core paradigm in many narratives engaging with nature and culture – seemingly the key contextual grounding of the human/animal discourse – is largely based upon a construction of the natural world as wild and the recognition of culture as a model of apparently civilised social order’. [3] This paradigm is evident within Madagascar and essential for the understanding of the social comment which the film makes concerning wildness and domesticity; the domesticity of our protagonists is a focal point of the film.

The four protagonists display differing attitudes towards the supposed ‘wild’, as Marty, a pessimistic character, dreams of escaping the monotony of Central Park Zoo to enjoy freedom in a place such as Connecticut. Marty represents the view that animals long for their open space and are kept unhappily in captivity. This longing for freedom and an escape from monotonous life is here representative of human existence, as much human life is spent longing for a release from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The use of animals to represent this allows the audience to draw parallels between their feelings about life and the feelings of a domesticated and caged animal, generating an empathetic response to the film. Our four protagonists interact in fluent American English and display human emotions and actions; Marty tries to take the train to the wild! Marty highlights the blurred distinctions between animal and human behaviour within the film, forcing an internal evaluation in the human audience concerning the ethics of retaining and breeding wild animals in captivity. This is all, however, subliminal within the film. These vast societal comments are embedded within the humour of the narrative created through the characters and their acts.

In contrast to Marty’s symbolism, Alex the lion (nicknamed the King of New York) is a symbol of harmony between animals kept in captivity and their human ‘owners’. Alex is happy at the zoo and enjoys all the home comforts of his pampered lifestyle. As the comfort and safety of domestication evaporate from his life, his decline into a feral, ‘wild’ lion comes between the special bonds of friendship which he has with Marty, Gloria and Melman. Alex symbolises a dependency which many domesticated animals have upon humanity, who choose to keep them in captivity for their own recreational enjoyment. A human audience view the changes in Alex as a degeneration of character, as they connect with him as a domestic and personified character. However, the changes in Alex would be viewed by the animal ‘wild’ as an ascent to his destined glory as the ‘King of the Jungle’. The change in Alex highlights a belief that all animals have an inherent wild instinct, regardless of their upbringing. The ambiguity of Alex’s character allows for a great moral debate upon the ethical issues surrounding the domestication of wild beings.

The ability of the animals to create and sustain true friendships throughout the film highlights again to the audience the parallel being drawn between the human and animal kingdoms, making further comment upon human society. Wells’ The Animated Bestiary is again relevant here as he outlines a Madagascar Problem, highlighting the inconsistence of the central paradigm within which Alex is redeemed as a character through his return from the feral. Alex ‘is pacified with a substitute resolution that speaks to the ethical necessity of family entertainment.’ [4] The redemption of Alex’s character is found through his return to domesticity, which is a problem for Wells as it does not accurately represent the natural instincts of the lion as an animal. Alex ‘returns to the safe context of his performance of the King of Beasts as his intrinsic identity; is educated to eat sushi (in a self-evident disdain for fish in the animal kingdom!); and resolves his predicament through the recognition that “his heart is bigger than his stomach.” While this offers some notion of closure, it remains unsatisfactory, both because it reduces a complex animal discourse  – which the film has introduced as its core dramatic problem – merely to the notion of polite eating, and because a ravenous primal appetite, with its accompanying instincts and violence, is reduced to a matter of social decorum and culinary taste.’ [5] The problem which Wells provides here is a limitation of the medium of animation, which here causes a failure in the accurate representation of animals through its provision of humour and irony, which detracts from the central moral issue of domestication and wildness.

Gloria the hippopotamus and Melman the giraffe, though not central characters to plot development, are continuations of the anthropomorphic focus surrounding the four protagonists. Melman displays a hypochondriac nature which humans would suppose is unique to their species; Gloria searches for true love as opposed to the ‘mating’ rituals a human would expect from a hippopotamus. These human attributes allow the audience to engage with the animals and identify with their situation as human.

The lemurs which they encounter and befriend on the island are also given voices by the animators, allowing for interaction between the tame and wild animals when they come into contact on the island. However, the feared ‘fossa’, a pack of lemur-eating animals, remains voiceless. Their lack of voice sets them aside from the more anthropomorphic animals to highlight the contrast between the domesticity of the zoo animals and the true representation of savage wildness which the pack of fossa represents. The fossa are separate from the semi-domestic society which the lemurs uphold on the island of Madagascar, highlighting to the audience the depth of degeneration which Alex undergoes when he becomes feral. The sense of community which the lemurs represent throughout the film imitates that of a utopian human society, drawing parallels between human and animal. The lemurs, although wild, are a tool to represent the higher cognitive functions of animals which may perhaps be undervalued by humans. They serve to highlight distinctions within the animal kingdom and to show that domesticity can also be found in the wild. This example of harmony in a supposed savage environment adds depth to the film’s comment upon the effect of human interference with the animal kingdom, complicating the ideas which it displays about the detrimental effect of domesticity, and showing that such domesticity can be useful to bring order to a savage place. The distinction between humans and animals is again blurred through the use of anthropomorphism, and thus the utopian nature of the lemur society perhaps hints at a societal and political criticism; the lemurs maintain their societal values and accept newcomers as part of their community. With the issues surrounding immigration and the exploitation and discrimination evident towards immigrants, could this perhaps be setting an example of acceptance?

The journeys which the animals embark on within the film all create important questions for thought for the audience, who are invited to take a journey themselves into the shoes of domesticated and captive animals. The adventure which the animals take leads them into many situations which test their friendship and loyalty to themselves, allowing the audience to identify with their situations and draw parallels between themselves and the animals.

Integral use of animals

Perhaps most importantly, the animals of Madagascar serve to evoke thought about the issues of captivity and the restriction of commercial zoos. The ever-ongoing debate about nature vs. nurture concerning the development of character is explored throughout the film, as Alex and his friends find themselves thrust into a wild environment after the gentle nurturing of a human-led upbringing. Humans are notably absent throughout the film, which perhaps serves to present the zoo as a representation of the Garden of Eden. Through this it can be said that the animals undergo the expulsion from Eden and subjection to evil and temptation which Adam and Eve experienced. This serves to strengthen the anthropomorphism of the animals, who are here placed into a human story of original sin.

Ethical issues surrounding the human interference with animal ‘wildness’ are brought forward with this animation as the audience is required to make a judgement upon the reasons for Alex’s degeneration and complete lack of ability to survive in his supposed natural habitat. The ability of Marty, Gloria and Melman to acclimatise easily shows perhaps a difference in species of animal which is important to note when considering the film as a comment on human xenophobia and acceptance; the animals’ friendships ultimately remain strong throughout their trials. However, it is important to remember the Madagascar Problem outlined by Wells which highlights the flaws within the film narrative.

Human xenophobes set a detrimental example of a lack of acceptance of the extraordinary and different within society. Darnell and McGrath work to make comment on this throughout the narrative ark of Madagascar. All different species of animals are shown to exist in a cohesive environment, with examples being the friendship between Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria and the society of lemurs on the island. The inclusion of the fossa and their lack of communication and integration serves to represent those found in human society who lack acceptance of other cultures, races and backgrounds, which is a very real issue in the human world. By choosing to keep the fossa a voiceless and savage species, Darnell and McGrath draw parallels between them and those living without acceptance within society, highlighting them as a lesser human species. Throughout the film it is those with acceptance and cohesion which bring the comedy and family film genre to the film, and this highlights these characters as positive examples of human society with regard to the view of the film as a representation of the human world.

In relation to this, the Madagascar animals create a true sense of friendship, which can overcome even the toughest obstacles (trying to eat your best friend is a pretty tough obstacle to get past). This real feel-good friendship nature of the film is indicative of the animation genre.

Connections to other animal films

The adventure genre can be found in many animated films, and DreamWorks Flushed Away (2006), coming from the creators of Madagascar, explores the issues of domestication in a similar way to Madagascar. The importance of friendship is a theme that runs through Flushed Away and many other animated films. This theme of emotional connection triumphing against the odds is perpetuated throughout the majority of Disney animations, and notably in 101 Dalmatians (1961) the human-animal relations are again placed on a parallel and the animals in the film are represented anthropomorphically so as to display the animal despair at the loss of their offspring as on par with the parallel human emotions. Additionally, the society evident within the animal community in 101 Dalmatians, across breeds and species, mirrors that found in Madagascar, as the friendships and loyalties of the animals are shown through their community cohesion.

Further reading suggestions

Simons, John, Animal Rights and the Politics of Literary Representation . Houndmills: Palgrave, 2002.

Wells, Paul : The Animated Bestiary – Animals, Cartoons and Culture – Rutgers University Press – New Brunswick, New Jersey and London (2009)


Dirks,   Tim :   accessed 19/01/2014

Dirks, Tim :   accessed 20/12/2013

Wells, Paul : The Animated   Bestiary – Animals, Cartoons and Culture – Rutgers University Press – New   Brunswick, New Jersey and London (2009) – P. 19-20