Sandy Wexler


Sandy Wexler is pleased.

(2017) Comedy (Netflix) Adam Sandler, Jennifer Hudson, Kevin James, Colin Quinn, Nick Swardson, Jackie Sandler, Terry Crews, Rob Schneider, Lamorne Morris, Aaron Neville, Jane Seymour, Luis Guzman, Arsenio Hall, Quincy Jones, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Mason “Ma$e” Betha, Rob Reiner, Chris Elliott, Eugenio Derbez, Milo Ventimiglia, Jessica Lowe. Directed by Steven Brill

 

We all know the big names in front of the camera. Some of the more dedicated movie buffs also know the big movers and shakers behind the camera Then there are the guys on the periphery, the outsiders. The guys like Sandy Wexler.

Wexler (A. Sandler) worked as a talent agent in the mid-90s in Los Angeles and to say he had A-list clients would be the kind of lie that he was well-known for saying; Sandy is almost pathologically incapable of telling the truth. He is also as pathologically loyal to his clients who are among the dregs of show business; a daredevil (Swardson) who has issues colliding with birds, a ventriloquist (James) who dreams of stardom on UPN and Bedtime Bobby Barnes (Crews) who’s a wrestler with a unique ring persona.

None of them have much of a future and quite frankly Wexler isn’t much of a manager either, promising gigs that never materialize or are much different than he represented on the phone. He drives his clients crazy but he’s also there for them when they need him most. One afternoon, he is taking the daughters of a client to a local theme park and there he hears the voice of an angel. It belongs to Courtney Clarke (Hudson) and Wexler knows that for the first time in his career, he has a legitimate talent right in front of him. After convincing her convict dad (Neville) that he can take her career to pop stardom, Courtney signs up with Wexler.

It doesn’t hurt that Sandy has a bit of an awkward crush on her, although she doesn’t seem to notice. Still, he manages to use his connections to get her in front of people the likes of Babyface and Quincy Jones. He also runs into a few sharks and it becomes pretty obvious that he’s way out of his depth but if there is one thing that is true about Sandy Wexler is that he believes in his clients and he believes that he can actually do them good. And maybe, in this one shining example, he might just find the warm glow of the big time within reach.

Sandler’s last three movies (including this one) have all been direct-to-Netflix and together with the last few theatrical features have been on a downward slide pretty much since Funny People. It’s nice to be able to say that this one is actually better than most of his recent films. There is a charm and warmth here that have been missing from his movies for awhile. There are few actors who can pass for amiable as well as Sandler – basically because that’s how he is away from the cameras by all accounts. He is at the top of his game in that regard here.

The story is mainly told in flashback, with dozens of celebrity cameos (including Chris Rock, Conan O’Brien, Penn Jillette, Rob Reiner, Pauly Shore, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, Janeane Garofalo, Louie Anderson, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis and Kevin Nealon, just to name a few) giving testimonials in some sort of celebration (we don’t find out what’s being celebrated until the very end of the picture). The celebrity testimonials are fun, one of the highlights of the movie. Some of them are genuinely funny.

The jokes for the most part are groaners, although not all of them are. It’s shtick for certain, but it is Grade A shtick nonetheless. The movie runs well over two hours long which may exceed your particular tolerance for an Adam Sandler movie, but for some may find that to be not a factor. I’ll admit I was checking my watch near the end.

This also has a definite feel for a lot of Sandler’s other films, particularly of the last decade or so which may be a deal breaker for some. It also may be for others a deal maker so it really depends on how you feel about Sandler and his type of humor in general. You will get the full Sandler shmear; shuffling hunched posture, funny voices, product placement and the usual cast of Happy Madison regulars (Happy Madison is Sandler’s production company).

Still, whether you love him or hate him, Sandler does have a knack for making one feel good as one watches the closing credits roll. This doesn’t stand among his best work but it is certainly the best movie that he has made for Netflix to date. Sandy Wexler stands as a heartfelt tribute to the outsiders on the fringe of the entertainment business, the ones who have more heart than talent whose eccentricities are endearing rather than annoying – mostly. There’s definitely room for a movie like that in the hearts of those who have a fondness for that kind of subject.

REASONS TO GO: The celebrity cameos are a lot of fun. The viewer is left with a pleasant feeling.
REASONS TO STAY: The jokes are really cornball. A little too much like Sandler’s other recent films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Sandy Wexler is based on Sandler’s real-life manager Sandy Wernick who also makes a cameo in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broadway Danny Rose
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

A Very Murray Christmas


More fun to make than it is to watch?

More fun to make than it is to watch?

(2015) Musical (Netflix) Bill Murray, Paul Shaffer, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, Chris Rock, Michael Cera, Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, Jenny Lewis, Amy Poehler, David Johansen, Dmitri Dimitrov, Julie White, Phoenix. Directed by Sofia Coppola

Back in the day, celebs like Dean Martin and Judy Garland used to put on Christmas specials and variety shows that would have the thinnest of plot lines but were mainly an excuse for them to sing a few Christmas tunes, have a few friends show up and generally just be themselves.

Director Sofia Coppola is trying to resurrect that vibe and has picked the perfect guy to do it; Murray plays a version of himself, contracted to do a live Christmas special at the Hotel Carlyle in New York City with its retro-cool Bemelmans’s Bar and Cafe Carlyle. An impressive guest list and audience however has evaporated as the city is paralyzed by a blizzard. Sensing catastrophe, Murray sinks into a booze-fueled depression as Hollywood handler-types (Poehler, White) and wanna-be agents (Cera) beset his Christmas mellow.

Guests happen by (Rock) or turn up as hotel employees (Lewis as a waitress, who has one of the better songs when she covers the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”, the band Phoenix whose frontman is married to Coppola, as a group of singing chefs) and musical numbers ensue. Murray captures the barfly/hipster mode nicely and sings adequately, but this is the type of Christmas show you’ll want to watch with a shaker full of martinis, a bowlful of peanuts and a pack of cigarettes.

Murray is a genial host but not in the tradition of a Dean Martin, a Mel Tormé or a Steve and Edie. Yes, he’s got that same rumpled charm that Dino had, but there is a weather-beaten feel to him, like someone who’s been too far and seen too much. The show opens with a bluesy downbeat Christmas song that sets the tone; world-weary Murray feeling the depression that often accompanies the Holidays. Essentially confined to the hotel by the weather and prowling the hallways like a claustrophobic cat, he hangs out in the bar and drinks away his sorrow, interacting with a bride (Jones) and groom (Schwartzman) whose wedding fell apart and whose relationship may be as well and listening to a lounge singer (Rudolph) belt out a few Christmas tunes.

Much of the action takes place in the hotel, other than a fantasy sequence featuring Clooney and Cyrus that takes place after Murray passes out. This is the kind of Christmas special for the crowd that identifies strongly with Mickey Rourke in Barfly or Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. And yet, there is a hipness to it, like Murray has us in on the coolest night in that crazy New York town ever, a place where Chris Rock might just stumble in from out of the cold and warble a duet of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” with Murray.

So this isn’t for everybody, needless to say. Some will find it too irreverent and even take insult – those who think there’s a war on Christmas might see this as yet another salvo (it’s not). I think it’s far more subversive, taking a pot shot at our attitudes towards the holiday and snickering at it, reminding us at once that there are those who are lonely and depressed at this time of year, but also reminding us that the holidays can take a bunch of strangers and make them family, even if just for one night. In that sense, A Very Murray Christmas is suffused with holiday magic. I don’t know that this would bear repeated viewings but I suspect that those who revel in this sort of thing will make it an annual tradition. As for me, I’ll take A Charlie Brown Christmas every time.

REASONS TO GO: Hippest Christmas special ever. Murray is always a hoot.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be overly irreverent for some. A bit heavy on the quirk.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity, adult themes, drinking and general attitude.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bill Murray doesn’t have Netflix and refuses to get it, which means he won’t be able to watch his own movie – not that he does that anyway.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scrooged
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Children of Men

Top Five


Chris Rock, standin' around.

Chris Rock, standin’ around.

(2014) Dramedy (Paramount) Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, J.B. Smoove, Romany Malco, Hayley Marie Norman, Anders Holm, Cedric the Entertainer, Kevin Hart, Karlie Redd, Ben Vereen, Sherri Shepard, Annaleigh Ashford, Jay Pharaoh, Tracy Morgan, Hassan Johnson, Leslie Jones, Luis Guzman, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg. Directed by Chris Rock

Fame is something we all kind of wish we had deep down. We want all the perks – admiration, adulation and wealth to name a few. The reality of fame though is far different than our perception of it, particularly among celebrities in the popular arts. The pressure to produce can be absolutely crushing and the availability of alcohol and drugs – and the encouragement to use them irresponsibly – also can add to a celebrity’s woes.

Andre Allen (Rock) is best-known as a stand-up comedian, considered by many to be one of the funniest men in America. His film career has spawned a lucrative franchise of a crime fighter in a bear suit. Now he’s trying to get up after hitting rock bottom after having gone through rehab and recovery. Sober a year and a half, he’s getting ready to marry Erica Long (Union), a reality TV star, on a Bravo reality series. His new movie, Uprizing about the Haitian slave rebellion is about to come out, and through it he hopes to reinvent himself as a serious Actor. Note the capital.

But the film is going to bomb. Everyone knows it except for Andre. His agent (Hart) has arranged for New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Dawson) to follow Andre around for a day, which he’s not very pleased about. The Times’ film critic has repeatedly excoriated his performances, comparing them to “crimes against humanity.” However he needs the publicity for the movie so he grudgingly goes along with it.

In the course of the night she will witness him reconnect with old friends and family, undergo interviews of often the most insensitive and inert kind, endure heartbreak and disappointment and come out on the other side – maybe with a clear understanding of who he is, maybe not.

I have always blown hot and cold when it comes to Chris Rock. His genius is plain to see but it hasn’t always been showcased properly in movies. His skills are in being Chris Rock, to present his views through his experiences and make them funny and relatable. He is not really a character actor; he never did the SNL thing of developing characters with their own distinct personalities. While that may limit one on the stand-up stage, it is excellent preparation for a motion picture career and has stood many alumni of the show well.

Rock stands out here. He is cocky and vulnerable, arrogant and humble, forceful and lost. I can’t think of many movie characters with as many contradictions as Andre Allen – and yes, having contradictions in a character is a good thing. We get to see facets of Rock that he usually doesn’t reveal. I don’t know that Rock is particularly looking to reinvent himself but he comes close here.

The support crew is pretty outstanding as well, a who’s who of modern American stand-up as well as some pretty fine actors in their own right. Dawson is one of those ladies who has a devastating smile, one that can melt solid steel and turn a glacier into a puddle in just about five seconds flat and yet it is rare that a director has really utilized it to good effect. Rock does and when he is the focus of that smile, every man in the audience feels it. This is one of her best roles ever.

Union has the thankless job of playing the fame-addicted reality TV star with a huge heaping helping of control freak factored in. She doesn’t have very many scenes with Rock (most of their interaction is over the phone) and the part isn’t terribly sympathetic but she still manages to make it real. Although we still don’t like her character.

Most of the cameos are just that but Last Comic Standing host J.B. Smoove gets himself a meaty part as Andre’s boyhood chum and bodyguard/chauffeur/right-hand man and runs with it. He reminds me a little bit of Arsenio Hall in Coming to America. In any case, the part works.

The movie itself is a bit of a mixed back. There were times I was drawn in and felt like a fly on the wall in someone’s life, which is when the movie works best. There were also some times when it felt like I was watching something staged, like the reality show within the movie. That’s when the movie works least.

This probably won’t be contending for my year-end top ten list but it should likely make the Honorable Mention. It’s pretty dang good but not great. There’s a lot here that works, like when Andre is visiting with folks from his past in the old New York neighborhood. When the movie is pouring it on about the movie star, then it felt a little bit forced. I would have liked to have seen more of the New York Chris Rock than the Hollywood Chris Rock. So, I suspect, would a lot of you.

REASONS TO GO: Has moments where it really fires on all cylinders. Rock is always a fascinating study.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses focus occasionally and overdoes it.
FAMILY VALUES: Nudity and strong sexual content, plenty of adult language, crude humor and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rock wrote the screenplay in his trailer while filming Grown-Ups 2 so at least something good came out of that movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stardust Memories
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Holly and the Quill begins!

New Releases for the Week of December 11, 2014


Exodus Gods and KingsEXODUS: GODS AND KINGS

(20th Century Fox) Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Ben Kingsley, Maria Valverde, Hiam Abbass. Directed by Ridley Scott

The story of Moses, who led the Hebrews out of Egyptian bondage (sounds kinkier than it is) and into the promised land of Israel is taken from the realm of The Ten Commandments and into the 21st century under the sure hand of Oscar-winning director Ridley Scott.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Biblical Epic
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for violence including battle sequences and intense images)

The Babadook

(IFC Midnight) Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Tim Purcell. A young widow struggles to raise her out-of-control son, finding it harder and harder to bond with him. He becomes convinced that there is a creature, conjured up by an innocent pop-up storybook, coming to kill them both. His mother of course doesn’t believe him but when she starts to get glimpses of the creature, she realizes that it is not his imagination; the threat is very real. This Australian gem played at the Florida Film Festival earlier this year and has been met with near-universal praise from critics and audiences alike as it has emerged from the festival circuit for a limited release.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Horror Thriller
Now Playing: Enzian
Rating: NR

Top 5

(Paramount) Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Cedric the Entertainer, Kevin Hart. One of the world’s most acclaimed stand-up comedians has transitioned into serious acting. He is getting set to marry a beautiful reality TV star. However, while being interviewed by a hold-nothing-back reporter, he begins to suspect he’s not as happy in his accomplishments as he would like and in fact part of him longs for a return to things as they once were.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for strong sexual content, nudity, crude humor, language throughout and some drug use)

Grown Ups 2


Adam Sandler tries to convince a mob of angry critics not to throw him and his friends over the cliff.

Adam Sandler tries to convince a mob of angry critics not to throw him and his friends over the cliff.

(2013) Alleged Comedy (Columbia) Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade, Salma Hayek, Maria Bello, Maya Rudolph, Nick Swardson, Steve Buscemi, Colin Quinn, Tim Meadows, Jon Lovitz, Taylor Lautner, Shaquille O’Neal, Alexander Ludwig, Georgia Engel, Peter Dante, Oliver Hudson, Allen Covert, Steve Austin, April Rose. Directed by Dennis Dugan

Growing older is not merely learning to cope with the aches, pains and infirmities that are visited upon our bodies; it is also learning to deal with our own increasing irrelevance as those who are younger are catered to and worshiped while those who were once sitting pretty in the sun are shuffled aside into the shadows. Growing old sucks.

But it doesn’t necessarily have to for Lenny Feder (Sandler). A successful career as a Hollywood agent has allowed him to move his family back to Amoskeag Lake where he grew up and where his friends Eric Lamonsoff (James) – a world class mama’s boy – Kurt McKenzie (Rock), a sharp-witted man and lady’s man gone to seed Marcus Higgins (Spade). All are family men who are feeling a little bit of middle age envy as their responsibilities as husband and parents have forced them to put aside the fun and games of their younger days.

Lenny’s restlessness increases as the last day of school coincides with the anniversary of Kurt and Deanne (Rudolph) which Kurt wants to celebrate with a big party at Lenny’s house, much to the surprise of Lenny’s wife Roxanne (Hayek) who although not consulted is all for an 80s-themed shindig.

But there’s a hell of a lot going on. When Lenny and his bro’s head on over to the quarry that they swam in as young men, they find it infested with the college kids who are none too happy to find mere townies invading what is their space. Particularly put out is Andy (an uncredited Lautner), leader of a bunch of preppy frat rats who bump chests, give weird intricate handshakes and spout off things like “Yeah, that just happened” and “Boo-yah!” ESPN couldn’t pay enough for the free advertising.

Now the Hideous Preppy Frat Villains are out looking to crash Lenny’s party and put a beat-down on him and his 2OldCrew. Lenny’s high school nemesis, Tommy Cavanaugh (Austin) who terrorized him back in the day, is the boyfriend of Lenny’s daughter ‘s hot dance teacher (Rose) and continues to frighten Lenny even now, a trait which he’s passed on to his son.

All of the buddies are basically dealing with mid-life issues from Marcus’ attempts to bond with  switchblade-wielding son he never knew he had to Lenny’s feeling that he’s missing out on things because he spends so much time doing the “right” things. Can they resolve them, show the frat kids who’s boss and throw one hell of a party?

I have to admit that I didn’t mind the first Grown Ups so much. It had some laughs and some real moments in which the talented comics (which also included Rob Schneider who wasn’t able to fit this movie into his schedule – and when Rob Schneider can’t find time to do your movie, you know there’s a problem) bonded and showed some genuine warmth. It looked like a lot of fun to make which made a second film inevitable (as did the massive box office the first film did). Sadly, I’m not looking forward to a third film, not even a little bit.

This is as bad a movie as I’ve seen this year. There’s nothing remotely funny going on here, at least other than in the trailer in which you can see all of the movie’s best moments. And as for plot, what you have here is a series gags strung together without rhyme or reason. It’s very much throwing whatever you can find against the wall and hoping it sticks and ladies and gents, moose piss sticks to any wall just fine.

This is a real waste of talent and time. I wish it were different but I had more fun glancing at Da Queen and shaking my head than I did watching the goings on onscreen. I can’t put it any more plainly – this is the very worst movie you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO GO: Because you missed the movie’s trailer where all the best moments can be found.

REASONS TO STAY: It’s. Not. Funny.

FAMILY VALUES:  Quite a bit of crude and sexually suggestive language and some male butt shots.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Adam Sandler’s first sequel.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 7% positive reviews. Metacritic: 19/100; critics hated this and for once I can scarcely blame them.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Love You, Beth Cooper

FINAL RATING: 2/10

NEXT: Pacific Rim

New Releases for the Week of July 12, 2013


Grown Ups 2

GROWN UPS 2

(Columbia) Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Kevin James, David Spade, Salma Hayek, Maya Rudolph, Taylor Lautner, Steve Buscemi, Maria Bello. Directed by Dennis Dugan.

Most of the all-star cast from the first movie is back and now the high-priced Hollywood agent has relocated to the small town he grew up in. It isn’t always idyllic but he is certain that it was the right move, and his family seems to agree. Now, joined by his friends, they are getting ready for the last day of school  for their kids – and find out that the grown ups still have an awful lot to learn.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (Opens Today)

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for crude and suggestive content, language and some male rear nudity)

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag

(Reliance) Farhan Akhtar, Sonam Kapoor, Dalip Tahil, Prakesh Raj. Milka Singh was once known as “the Flying Sikh” and was one of the most dominant sprinters of his day. However in the 1960 Rome Olympics, he lost a race he was heavily favored to win and found himself disgraced. His return and redemption was the stuff legends are made of.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens today)

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: NR

Lootera

(Ramesh Sippy) Ranveer Singh, Sonakshi Sinha, Adil Hussain, Vikrant Massey. An archaeologist in the 1950s impresses the local magistrate and more so the magistrate’s feisty and independent daughter. However the archaeologist has some skeletons in his closet and rather than let them rattle around free decides to leave. However, you know he won’t stay left forever…

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Pacific Rim

(Warner Brothers) Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Ron Perlman. Humanity is at war with invaders from beneath our own oceans – a vicious, gigantic alien race called the Kaiju. To fight these nearly unstoppable creatures we develop gigantic robots we call Jaegers, machines powered by two linked, synchronous human minds. However we are still losing the war and humanity’s last chance boils down to an obsolete Jaeger run by two mismatched pilots – one an untested rookie, the other a burned-out pilot who has lost his edge. While this sounds like the plot for an anime, this is in reality a live action feature from director Guillermo del Toro.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (Opens Today)

Genre: Sci-Fi Action

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief language)

The Pawn Shop Chronicles

(Anchor Bay) Paul Walker, Norman Reedus, Elijah Wood, Brendan Fraser. A Southern pawn shop sees a clientele of the weird, the wacky and the warped as three tales of sordid and strange goings on are wrapped around items being pawned. Among the customers are a man searching for his wife who’s been kidnapped, a pair of white-supremacist meth-addled crackers and a beaten-down Elvis impersonator. All wind up pawning items that cost more than they think.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for violence, sexual material, graphic nudity, pervasive language and some drug use)

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted


Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

Children, if you learn one less from this movie, remember this – Monte Carlo is relatively easy to invade by sea.

(2012) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter, Frances McDormand, Jessica Chastain, Martin Short, Bryan Cranston, Vinnie Jones, Paz Vega. Directed by Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon

 

I think it’s relatively easy to entertain kids, from the standpoint of animation. I mean, just look at most of the programming on the Cartoon Network; the animation is godawful, the humor gross, and little to recommend it other than it gets kids out of their parents hair for a little while. If my parents had gotten a gander at “The Regular Show” and some of the other more popular shows on the network, they would have chucked the TV out the window but since we lived in a ranch house, my Dad probably just would have taken an axe to the damn thing instead.

While there are some really good animated movies out there (thanks, Pixar) that both parents and children can watch together, there is also a lot of crap as well. For a long time, I put the first to movies of the Madagascar franchise in that category so to say the least, I wasn’t looking forward to the third installment in the series. Boy was I pleasantly surprised.

The renegade zoo animals from the Central Park Zoo – Alex the Lion (Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Rock), Melman the Giraffe (Schwimmer) and Gloria the Hippo (Smith) – are where we left them at the conclusion of Madagascar: Escape2Africa; stuck in the savannah with the natives while the Penguins have flown the monkey-powered super-plane to Monte Carlo to raise enough cash to get them back to New York. Alex in particular is suffering from homesickness. Even a birthday gift of a mud brick model of the Big Apple doesn’t seem to help.

The four friends decide that the penguins have had long enough to complete their mission and decide that they’ll go to Monte Carlo themselves to find the penguins and take the super-plane back to New York. How did they get to Europe from the African savannah? They walked (presumably) to the coast and then they swam. Snorkeled, actually. No, don’t question it. You’ll only get a headache. Just go with it. Tagging along are King Julian (Cohen), Maurice (Cedric) and Mort (Richter) who are now joined at the hip with the New Yorkers.

Anyway, things go horribly wrong and the appearance of a lion, a zebra, a hippo and a giraffe inside a posh casino causes a bit of a stir. This sets the French animal control expert Captain DuBois (McDormand) – the principality apparently having no animal control of their own that they have to import it from another country – on the case. DuBois has always wanted to mount the head of a lion on her wall to join the other creatures that have crossed her path to complete her collection and she’ll stop at nothing to get what she wants, including singing Edith Piaf standards. Yes I know- it’s horrible.

The animals, having hooked up with the penguins and the monkeys, manage to escape the clutches of DuBois but crash the super-plane in the process. Fleeing for their very lives, they manage to sneak aboard a circus train to blend in; Vitaly the Tiger (Cranston), the leader of the circus animals, is reluctant to let them aboard but after Gia the Leopard (Chastain) convinces him that the refugees are indeed circus animals themselves, bolstered by the less-than-smart seal Stefano (Short). The circus has a shot at an American tour if they can impress a promoter in London to finance it. However, the circus has fallen upon hard times the only way to get the animals to New York is to buy the circus from the owner, which the penguins do using their ill-gotten gains at the casino. However, it’s going to take a lot of work to get this circus back in shape. It might be more than even Alex’ can-do attitude can accomplish.

Some of the elements that had left me cold about the first two movies remain – most glaringly, the animation. While I don’t think every CGI animated feature needs to attempt to be photorealistic, this is just plain badly animated. If you think mid-90s videogame style works in the second decade of the 21st century, we really need to have a talk. The animals have few expressions and this looks decidedly dumbed down for the Cartoon Network crowd.

Considering the star power here, the voice acting is fairly by the numbers. Short is a bit over-the-top as Stefano but actually injects a little emotion where it is sorely needed; likewise for Chastain who is a little more subtle than the Canadian comic. It all comes together in the circus sequences which are dream-like, brightly colored, and entertaining (not to mention fun). They are frankly the most enjoyment I’ve gotten in this series, which has been not high on my list of animated features to be honest.

However, the story is a vast improvement over the first two. It gives us a recognizable villain and some conflict. There is also a bit of emotional resonance that was lacking in the first movie. Yes I know kids will be thrilled by the bright colors and blank faces of the talking animals, but for once adults who have to go see it with their progeny won’t be squirming in their seats and checking their watches.

REASONS TO GO: So far, the best of the series. Circus sequences genuinely fun and colorful.

REASONS TO STAY: Animation is still clunky compared to other major franchises.

FAMILY VALUES: While there’s a bit of rude humor and some fairly tame action sequences, otherwise this is plenty fine for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The style of the animal-led circus echoes that of Cirque du Soleil, which features no animals whatsoever.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100. The reviews are mixed but mostly on the positive side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Greatest Show on Earth

EDITH PIAF LOVERS: One of her most beloved songs, “Non, je ne regrette rien” is sung by Captain DuBois to her injured men during the hospital scene, the power of the music healing them of their wounds. It is listed on the official soundtrack as being sung by Frances McDormand but it sounds suspiciously like Piaf singing it.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: JCVD