Think of all the New York movies you’ve ever watched: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, When Harry Met Sally, Sex and The City etc. All of these films capture what can only be described as an ideal New York experience, or an aesthetically pleasing version of New York filled with guys, parties, and rag tag group of gals.
Let’s take a trip back to memory lane for a second, and consider one of the greatest animation films that deserves major critical praise: Madagascar. That’s right! Madagascar, in my not so humble opinion, encapsulates the experience of New York much more realistically than other films about New York. I was recently watching Madagascar the other day and was surprised by not only how smart the humor was but how deeply I was able to relate to the Fab Four of The Central Park Zoo. The fab four being Marty (Zebra), Alex (Lion), Gloria (Hippo), and Melman (Giraffe).
The film starts out with Marty running in a field, flowers and all, towards a river, with Born Free playing in the background. His daydream is interrupted by his best friend, Alex, and it’s revealed that Marty is in his pen at the Central Park Zoo. His daydream was to be free from the constant work and performative nature in New York, as he is approaching his 10th year in New York, and just wants to be free. This slump leads him to wish later in the film, for his birthday, to be in the wild, instead of staying at the zoo. His friends, Alex, Gloria, and Melman, think that this is ridiculous and that New York has so much to offer, unlike the “wild” of Connecticut.
Alex tries his best to cheer up Marty who is depressed over not having an authentic life as a zebra should. Alex and Marty have a moment as best friends do, sing a song about New York and wake up their neighbors (very New York). They part ways and go to bed. Melman who can only be described as a hypochondriac and walking manifestation of city life anxiety, realizes Marty is gone, wakes Alex up and they set out to search for Marty at Grand Central knowing he’s trying to go Connecticut. (Note: Melman also knows train routes without any context, Lexington might be faster than Park, we’ll never know).
In the meantime, Marty is being a zebra living his best life experiencing freedom. He unfortunately misses the train to Connecticut, when Alex tackles him and the four get detained. The media gets ahold of the incident citing that the animals should be free from performance, and free from work. They all get shipped to Africa only to fall overboard the ship, and end up San Diego.
At this point, San Diego is viewed as a very party like place, similar to how most New Yorkers view L.A., and it brings into question the California vs New York debate. Alex is unable to adapt to the lifestyle and just wants to go home. In the meantime, the other 3 are having an absolute blast initially. When they encounter the real life brook that was in the mural Marty used to daydream about, it is a pivotal moment for the friendship of Marty And Alex. They run free towards the brook, and Alex gets in touch with his primal instincts for the first time. This however is too ideal of an escape, because it is only Marty’s wish and not Alex.
Alex knows that he belongs in New York and is tricking himself to think he can survive in San Diego. He is only the King of the Urban jungle, and can’t comprehend being the King in the real one. He starts having hallucinations of performing again like he used to, and becomes delirious. He becomes a threat to those around him and isolates himself. With this physical manifestation coupled with his unhappiness of being away from home, Marty realizes that they all need to go home. He wants his best friend back, and refuses to leave without him. Marty knows home is with Alex in New York.
I say this film is quintessential, because the routine of these animals are similar to the hustle of the city. It can be a lot to handle at times, and sometimes one can wonder if New York is the right place to be in. Many of us can relate to Marty with wanting to get out of a place you have been stuck in, and getting out of a routine that isn’t exciting. The other films I listed are an idealized version of New York that don’t take into account a 9 to 5 routine, a small place you live in, and existential dread. At the end of the day, you can’t run from who you are meant to be, and where you belong. Marty knows that this was just a detour to the life he is truly meant to live with the people who love him.
One Final Note
You decide: Is Marty black with white stripes, or white with black stripes?