Animation franchises notoriously find themselves running out of steam as the sequels rack up. One glance across at the Shrek series, a DreamWorks stablemate of Madagascar, is proof enough that it isn't always easy to recapture the magic of the debut instalment.
Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted may arrive with low expectations, but it's a pleasant surprise, sending its character barrelling across continents for a zippy, engaging 90-minute adventure. Lion Alex (Ben Stiller), zebra Marty (Chris Rock), hippopotamus Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) and giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) are all back as the group are still pining for a return to the Central Park Zoo.
It's a breakneck introduction, and directors Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon do a fine job of keeping the pace (and jokes) fast and frantic throughout.
The animals wind up buying a ramshackle circus and heading by train to Rome and London. It offers up the chance to freshen up the cast by introducing new characters Gia (Jessica Chastain), Stefano (Martin Short) and Vitaly (Bryan Cranston). Alex and co bluff their way into becoming circus performers, but find some resistance from Vitaly, a tiger with a confidence crisis after his circus trick - passing through a tiny flaming ring - goes awry.
Penned by Darnell and (bizarrely) Noah Baumbach, Madagascar 3 is a witty, inventive animation with some excellent voice work from its cast. So often A-list stars sound like they're phoning in a performance, but there's plenty of enthusiasm and verve from all the main players here.
The main highlight is McDormand's turn as the sinister DuBois, who in her best moment walks into a hospital scene to belt out 'Non, je ne regrette rien' to revive her bedridden colleagues. The romantic union between King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) and tutu-wearing bear Sonya will also prompt plenty of chuckles.
There's some kaleidoscopic visual moments, too, notably a montage set to Katy Perry's 'Firework' and a dazzling sequence set at a circus on the banks of the Thames.
With Madagascar 3, it feels like creators Darnell and McGrath have ironed out all the problems they had in previous instalments and perfected a formula that works for them. This isn't as startlingly inventive or emotionally wrenching as some of Pixar's best work, but judge it purely on entertainment value and Madagascar 3 delivers in spades.