You'll sometimes hear the Pixar and DreamWorks animation empires compared thusly: Pixar is a filet mignon; DreamWorks is a fast food hamburger.  If that's true, then the surprisingly and entertainingly bizarre 'Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted' is like a Happy Meal laced with LSD. The first couple bites are all highly processed artificial sweeteners, but the aftertaste lingers with hallucinogenic visuals and deranged dream logic comedy.  This might be the most drug-friendly kids movie since 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.'

It's hard to imagine children's entertainment getting much stranger than this; it feels like the product of an experiment into the effects of psychedelic mushrooms on the screenwriting process.  The talking animal heroes -- cowardly lion Alex (Ben Stiller), outgoing zebra Marty (Chris Rock), nebbishy giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer), and brassy hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) -- get sick of their lives in Africa and decide to chase their penguin friends, who've flown the group's airplane to Monte Carlo for a lavish vacation, in an effort to convince them to ferry them home to a New York City zoo.

Even without the flying penguin airplane, the critters manage to navigate their way from the plains of Africa all the way to Monaco, apparently by snorkeling.  If you can snorkel your way across the Mediterranean, do you really need a flying penguin airplane to make it across the Atlantic?  Also: where did a lion, a zebra, a giraffe, and hippo find snorkels that fit?  And how'd they put them on without fingers?  The whole movie works this way.  It makes no sense. Unless you're high, in which case I imagine it makes perfect sense.

From Monte Carlo, the gang goes to Rome to London and, yes, on to America.  Their means of transportation is a circus train, which Alex and company stow away on in an effort to escape from an evil French animal control officer named Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand).  If animals snorkeling across the Mediterranean strikes you as odd, let me tell you: that's practically cinéma vérité compared to the madness that ensues whenever DuBois appears on screen.  She skitters around on all fours like a spider, uses her hypersensitive sense of smell to track her prey, and sings "Non, je ne regrette rien" to motivate her injured co-workers out of their hospital beds.  During that hilarious and totally inexplicable scene the thought crossed my mind: had someone spiked my complementary bag of popcorn?  How can this be an actual mainstream movie?  Who comes up with this stuff?

That would be co-director/co-writer Eric Darnell, co-writer Noah Baumbach (no you're not tripping either, the 'Squid and the Whale' guy) and co-directors Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon.  'Europe's Most Wanted' doesn't quite hang together as a story, but it has the propulsive forward momentum and go-for-broke absurdity of a classic 'Looney Tunes' cartoon.  It only gets richer and stranger as it goes along.  At the emotional climax, when the circus animals -- including Bryan Cranston as a tiger who's lost his confidence, Martin Short as a dopey sea lion, and Jessica Chastain as a foxy jaguar (or a jaguar-y jaguar, I guess) -- dazzle a delighted audience with highwire, trapeze, and human zebra cannonball acts, the film abandons any pretense of realism for abstract visual spectacle that is so insanely beautiful you could cut it out of the movie, call it an experimental short about light, color, and movement through 3-D cinematic space, and show it at the Museum of Modern Art.

A word about the 3-D. Here, finally, is a movie that is inconceivable in two dimensions.  Darnell, McGrath, and Vernon's use of 3-D is literally in your face.  Once the animals start playing around at the circus, and you have zebras and lions flying through the air, the nimble use of camera, choreography, and depth is nothing short of breathtaking.  This is eye candy so saccharine sweet it might send viewers into diabetic comas.

So you take these incredibly dynamic visuals and add a layer of truly weird humor -- I haven't even told you about the romance between the lemur (Sacha Baron Cohen) and the circus bear that culminates in an audience with the friggin' Pope -- and you have a movie that is thoroughly surprising.

I'd never seen either of the previous 'Madagascar's and I expected this one to be your run-of-the-mill mix of antic children's adventure and fart jokes. There are traces of that here, but there's also a kind of crazy, go-for broke spirit of experimentation. At one point, Alex motivates his circus colleagues with a speech insisting that it's better to try something new than to coast along doing the same old thing.  The filmmakers took their own words to heart and made a super-sized WTF of a kids movie.

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‘Madagascar 3' hits theaters on June 8th

Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’

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