By Mike Collett-White
CANNES, France (Reuters) - The joke is on Europe, and in particular France, with the third animated "Madagascar" adventure, which has its world premiere at the Cannes film festival on Friday bringing big names in comedy to the red carpet.
"Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted", from DreamWorks Animation, is the first installment in the franchise to be shot in 3D, and studio bosses will be hoping it can match the box office magic of its predecessors.
A slot at the Cannes film festival, where hundreds of news outlets descend each year, can be an ideal launchpad, particularly because the notoriously fussy critics tend to blunt their pencils for animated entertainment.
"This festival, it celebrates all types of film ... Our film's about travelling to Europe and what better place could we launch a film like that than in Cannes?" said Tom McGrath, one of three directors working on the movie.
"What we always aspired to do was to take you to a fantastic world, like everyone was transported when they saw Pinocchio," he told a news conference after a press screening.
"That's the great thing about CG (computer generated animation). First people aspired to do photo-realism, and now we're trying to create these fantasy worlds."
In Madagascar 3, the central characters of Alex, Marty, Gloria and Melman leave Africa in search of their penguin friends who have flown to Europe to spend their gold and gems in the casino in Monte Carlo.
"Operation Penguin Extraction" goes predictably awry, and in the ensuing havoc the heroes join a travelling circus in their bid to get back to their beloved New York.
On the way, via Rome and London, European stereotypes are sent up, including France's reputation as a country where people work short hours and its cultural icon Edith Piaf, whose famous song "Non, je ne regrette rien" is gloriously parodied.
When Vitaly, a grumpy Russian tiger, disagrees with Alex, he counters "That's Bolshevik!", prompting an American penguin to add: "Never thought I'd say this ... but the Russky's right."
Famous scenes from well-known action movies are also recreated, including the bus balancing on the edge of a cliff in "The Italian Job" and people dodging flying bullets, or in this case bananas, in "The Matrix".
The main villain in Madagascar 3 is deranged French animal control officer Capitaine Chantel DuBois, voiced by Frances McDormand.
Part Cruella De Vil and part rottweiler, she terrorizes the fleeing animals, hell bent on claiming Alex's scalp to complete her stuffed animal wall hangings.
Ben Stiller returns as the voice of good-hearted lion Alex, Chris Rock reprises his role as the irrepressible zebra Marty and David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith are back as Melman and Gloria respectively.
New to the cast in the "threequel" are Bryan Cranston as Vitaly, Martin Short as the scene-stealing Italian sea lion Stefano and Jessica Chastain as a sultry jaguar.
According to website Boxofficemojo.com, the first Madagascar film from 2005 earned $533 million in global ticket sales and the second (2008) around $604 million.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)