"Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" is one of the fanciest, most carefully assembled cartoons ever put on the screen. The jokes come so fast they're nearly subliminal. Plot points whiz by and when things threaten to blur, there's a crazy musical number or a tightly worked out physical comedy routine involving a hippo or a penguin. Then it's back on the bullet train. Your brain goes breathless and giddy struggling to keep up.
Like "Madagascar 2," this one begins right where the previous story left off. Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and the rest of the refugees from the Central Park Zoo are still stranded in Africa and yearning to get back where they belong. The rickety monkey-built plane from the last installment achieves liftoff, but the avaricious penguins and vainglorious King Julien the lemur (Sacha Baron Cohen) are, as usual, infuriating double-crossers, and our heroes are left to their own devices.
With faultless cartoon logic, the menagerie scuba-dives to Monaco, where they make a shambles of the famed casino. With animal control officer Capt. Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand) in hot pursuit, they hide in a traveling circus, meeting new characters including Vitaly (Bryan Cranston), a growling, heavy-souled Siberian tiger.
As the circus tours Rome and London, the film has plenty of broad fun with European stereotypes. Capt. DuBois is the mirror image of the ineffectual gendarme, pursuing the runaway animals with ninja-like agility and tenacity a Terminator would admire. She's still French to the core, though, breaking into an extended Edith Piaf routine that will tickle kids even if they don't get the context.
There are a couple of funny cross-species love affairs. Baron Cohen's lemur flips for the circus's unicycle star, a plump, tutu-clad grizzly bear. The script, by indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale," "Fantastic Mr. Fox"), adds a creative, off-kilter vibe that sets the cartoon apart from "Madagascar's" animated peers. It's not every writer who would see the comic potential of putting those mismatched lovers in ravishingly romantic Roman vistas with Andrea Bocelli warbling love songs. It kills.
Gia (Jessica Chastain), a flirtatious leopard with eyes for Alex, is a wonderful new addition. She's a very sensuous, nubile feline. After some kittenish shenanigans, he impatiently asks her, "Are you five?" She replies, "Yes," leaving us in the audience to do swift mental calculations from cat years to human to assure ourselves she's not underage. Then you realize you're fretting over moral peril to a cat. A cartoon cat.
A circus contract that could bring the animals back to America sets up the finale, a whirligig spectacle of acrobatic teamwork to the tune of Katy Perry's "Firework" that ends the movie on a delirious high note. This one is almost too good to leave to the children.