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Daffy ‘Madagascar 3’ tops original film

Still run zoo refugees Melman GloriMarty Alex jocircus where silly selinamed Stefano (center) serves as ringmaster “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most

Still on the run, zoo refugees Melman, Gloria, Marty and Alex join a circus, where a silly sea lion named Stefano (center) serves as the ringmaster in “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.”

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‘Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’ ★★★ 1⁄2

With the voices of:

Alex Ben Stiller

Marty Chris Rock

Gloria Jada Pinkett-Smith

Melman David Schwimmer

Vitaly Bryan Cranston

Gia Jessica Chastain

DreamWorks/Paramount present a film directed by Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon. Written by Darnell and Noah Brumbach. Running time: 93 minutes. Rated PG (for some mild action and rude humor). Opening Friday at local theaters.

Updated: July 9, 2012 6:04AM

It’s something that hardly ever happens with big Hollywood studio films — a sequel that’s actually better than the original movie.

Even more rare: a second sequel pulling off that feat.

Happily, that’s the case with “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” the absolutely charming and very funny third outing for those displaced New York zoo animals, including the egocentric (though loving) Alex the lion (again voiced by Ben Stiller), the edgy zebra Marty (Chris Rock at his always zinger-ready best), the nervous-nelly giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) and his incongruous love interest, the happy hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith).

In this animated 3-D romp — where the 3-D is nicely executed, by the way — our pack of wacky animals find themselves deserted on the plains of Africa by the wily and usually devious penguins, who have flown the coop, aided by their monkey allies.

The always optimistic Alex is convinced that the penguins will soon return and fly the whole group back to their Manhattan zoo home — a hope that his other companions clearly know is a pipe dream.

Through a series of fun — and quickly dispatched — storylines, Alex and company find themselves whirling through Monaco and Rome while spewing out well-crafted dialogue that will entertain the kids but will have adults roaring as well. Like all really good animated movies, the story works for children and their parents (or whoever accompanies them to the multiplex) — a win-win all around.

A nice twist to this third “Madagascar” is the introduction of a group of down-on-their-luck European circus animals, including the moody and suspicious Siberian tiger Vitaly (Bryan Cranston), the sexy jaguar Gia (Jessica Chastain) and the simpleminded but well-meaning sea lion Stefano (Martin Short).

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the hilarious role played by Frances McDormand as the deliciously villainous — and borderline insane — Monte Carlo animal control officer Capt. Chantal DuBois. Did I say “borderline insane”? No, DuBois is totally wacko! She adds such a terrific new level of fun, especially in the chase scenes involving DuBois’ ceaseless campaigns to corral the critters.

I won’t give away any key plot points, but suffice to say, this third film in this highly successful franchise does tie up all the loose ends for this nomadic bunch of zoo denizens. However, after watching these endearing animated pals again, you’re left hoping that they’ll return at least one more time — or maybe even more than that.

If co-writer Noah Baumbach and co-director Eric Darnell agree to do it again, I’m sure they could take Alex and his friends in another equally engaging journey.

The attention to detail is superb — especially the scenes that take place in Monte Carlo and Rome.

A true winner, “Madagascar 3” is a wonderful family film all the way through.

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