Madagascar, Small Time Crooks, Schindler’s List

Boy, now that’s a marquee!

Sometimes all a movie has to be is funny, and the first two movies on this short list are funny (Schindler has its moments too, but let’s not push it). I wouldn’t confuse either Madagascar or Small Time Crooks with high art, but Madagascar is a scream. I watched it for the third or fourth time this evening (that’s how it is when you’ve got kids) and my four-year-old and we both laughed our heads off. You know a movie has got something on the ball when both the four-year-old and the forty-four-year-old are laughing at the same gags.

It has almost no plot, and for once it’s a relief. These CGI pictures are so expensive, they usually end up over-plotted and airtight, not a moment wasted. As James Urbaniak once said about Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, “You could bounce a quarter off that movie.” And as much as I like the Pixar movies (I’ve seen all of them at least 50 times), they are slick, polished and calculated compared to Madagascar, which has a loose, flexible, what-the-hell quality about it. Maybe because it’s only 75 minutes long, 60 of which passes without the semblance of a plot. It feels like a much older comedy, something like Horsefeathers perhaps, with an accent on situation and character instead of plot, which, considering its budget and construction, is a miracle. I mean, think of it. Here’s a movie that had to cost over $100 million and was developed over something like a decade, and at some point someone in charge (probably Jeffrey Katzenberg) said “You know what? The hell with plot and ‘lessons’ and heart-tugging emotion. People get that all the time from family films. Let’s just make this the funniest thing we can, let it breathe a little. Can we do that?”

And then it works, and goes on to make a billion dollars (I’m guessing).

Small Time Crooks I haven’t seen since it came out, but, like a lot of Woody Allen’s slighter movies, it holds up well over time. I would put it slightly below Manhattan Murder Mystery or Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy in terms of pure enjoyment.

Woody Allen gets lauded all the time for his writing and direction, but no one ever seems to notice what a great actor he is. And you could say “Yeah, but he’s always Woody Allen,” but so what? Cary Grant was always Cary Grant, no one ever complained about it. The detail, spontaneity and rhythm of his performances is consistently astonishing to me. How he gets the performances he does from his other cast members is another question. I’ve heard from a number of actors that he is ridiculously incommunicative as a director, but he somehow he manages to get career-best performances from people. In the case of Small Time Crooks, there’s Elaine May, who I’ve never seen work as an actor before, and she is amazing here. Yes, okay, everyone’s playing stupid, but she takes it to a whole different level. With Michael Rappaport for instance, we can see that we’re seeing a smart guy play a stupid guy, but Elaine May is completely opaque, your jaw drops when she says the things she does. I’ve actually met people who are as stupid as her character here, and that’s how they are. Not just garden-variety stupid people, I mean people where you really don’t know how they get through the day, you’re worried they’re going to forget to breathe or something.

Although the DVD transfer is only okay, the photography by Zhou Fei is typically luminescent.

And I bring up Schindler’s List only to point out that it also features the guy painting the name on the glass door again. So there you are, Hudsucker, Seven and Schindler, the basis to your next “stump the film geek” quiz.
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5 Responses to “Madagascar, Small Time Crooks, Schindler’s List”
  1. craigjclark says:

    I haven’t seen Small Time Crooks since it was in theaters. Of all of his latter-day, post-convenient MGM box set films, that is one of the few I’ve actually considered adding to my collection at some point. (Manhattan Murder Mystery is one of the others.)

    Didn’t see Madagascar primarily because the trailer (specifically the singing of the birthday song in it) was so off-putting. Also, the follow-up short with the penguins that was shown with the Wallace & Gromit film didn’t exactly endear me either. Overdetermined as they may seem, I prefer the wealth of detail and depth of character in a Pixar film over the relentless pop culture references of the Shrek franchise or the Shark Tales of the world. Considering the source, I figured Madagascar would be the same.

    Besides, whenever I hear or read the name Madagascar, I think of David Ogden Stiers in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. I can’t help it. The same goes for Constantinople.

  2. toliverchap says:

    CGI animations

    I’m an animation guy. I dig the cartoons and all that but I haven’t really gotten into the Pixar CGI stuff. I have to get past the stylism that I feel is lacking in many of these pictures. Since you’ve mentioned a few of these movies, I was wondering if you might recommend a top 5 CGI animations that I should check out for my own animation edification?

  3. Anonymous says:

    If you loved Madagascar, you’ll awkwardly grin through…!

    That’s gotta sting. Or… they stole it. From Madagascar and Finding Nemo… … … … oh boy…

    • Todd says:

      Re: If you loved Madagascar, you’ll awkwardly grin through…

      I saw the billboard for this. I feel sorry for Disney.

      What happens is that different companies have similar ideas and make their movies at more or less the same time. I don’t believe that either Disney or Dreamworks was trying to steal anything from anybody. What makes this a little awkward is that even the advertisement makes The Wild look like Madagascar. Apparently, wild animals come to New York, which makes for a fish-out-of-water comedy. It’s too bad that Madagascar has already turned the idea inside-out, taking zoo animals out of New York and putting them into the wild, which they’re not ready for. Or as one executive put it to me, “Madagascar is about neurotic zoo animals, Shrek is about neurotic fairy-tale creatures, Antz is about neurotic insects…”

      Madagascar, for those curious, was in development at Dreamworks at least ten years ago, so I doubt very much that they were stealing anything from Disney. It is a little too bad, though.