Big, bright Madagascar 3 entertains

Ben Stiller and Chris Rock return for more animated silliness.

Briskly paced, neon colored, and pleasingly over the top, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted is an uneven but entertaining entry. It’s also the first of the series to be delivered in 3D, and the effect complements the vivid visuals on display.

The first half hour or so of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted has an exhilarating manic energy. As the film opens, the four main characters from the series are still stranded in the African savannah. Homesick and determined to make it back to the Central Park Zoo, Alex (Ben Stiller), Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith), Melman (David Schwimmer) and Marty (Chris Rock) must first round up the penguins, whose plane can take them back to New York City.

The quartet crosses the Mediterranean and surfaces off the coast of Monte Carlo, where the penguins are employing their ingenuity (and a few chimps) to clean up at the casinos. Their appearance attracts the single-minded attention of Captain Chantel DuBois, a resourceful, sadistic French animal control officer (voiced by Frances McDormand). DuBois moves like a spider as she tracks her prey and has a nose that imbues her with a 3D image of the group’s last whereabouts. She’s also determined to add Alex to her wall of animal trophies.

With DuBois hot on their tails, the gang hitches a ride on a circus train, where they must gain the trust and respect of the animal performers, including a foul-tempered, knife-throwing Russian tiger named Vitaly (Bryan Cranston), compassionate Gia the jaguar (Jessica Chastain) and a dim-witted but cute Italian sea lion, Stefano (Martin Short).

Before they can finish making acquaintances, Alex and company discover they are — thanks to the penguins — the new owners of Circus Zaragoza. After a disastrous performance in Rome, Alex takes the lead in reinvigorating the troupe before they head for the big top in London, where a successful showing could earn them the transatlantic journey they’ve been hoping for. His biggest challenge is convincing Vitaly to attempt the ring of fire act that made him famous.

Some images and events are inspired — the sight of a monkey dressed as the king of Versailles; the courtship between a performing bear and King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen); and the audacious theft of the Pope’s ring. The second half of the film devotes a bit more time to characterization and offers dazzling neon-lit circus acts. It also features an ending that leaves the door open for a fourth entry if this one does well enough at the box office.