CANNES, France — Google "Madagascar" and two of your top three results will not be the country that lies off the coast of southeast Africa, but the DreamWorks Animation movie franchise.
The first two installments have earned more than $1.1 billion worldwide. The third, "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted," opens in theaters Friday, the beginning salvo in a global release strategy that continues throughout the summer. A spinoff movie for the films' stealthy commando penguins is currently being developed, too.
The rainbow-colored wigs that are being used to promote "Madagascar 3" — a gag taken from a dance in the film by Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock) — have appeared everywhere from the Cannes Film Festival's prestigious red carpet (where the film premiered last month) to the winners circle of the recent FedEx 400 NASCAR race, where victor Jimmie Johnson donned the wig.
How could an island nation possibly compete with that?
If the expanse of the "Madagascar" franchise appears global, that's not a coincidence. There's no bigger proponent of the international movie marketplace than DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. And in the 3-D "Madagascar 3," he has a globe-trotting, European road trip that suits both the film's story and its worldwide box office appeal.
"Animation is kind of an international language," says Tom McGrath, one of the three directors of the film, along with Eric Darnell and Conrad Vernon. "Hopefully what appeals to people is that we took liberties, equal opportunity insulting of every nationality. Hopefully, we didn't leave anyone out."
In the film, the familiar group of New York City zoo animals — Marty, Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) — plot their escape from the wilds of Africa, where the 2008 sequel left them. With the aim of returning to their performing perches in Manhattan's Central Park Zoo, they latch on to a traveling circus in Europe, a plot that introduces a host of new locales and new characters, including an Italian sea lion (Martin Short), an Italian jaguar (Jessica Chastain) and a Russian tiger (Bryan Cranston).
"We never said to the filmmakers: Could they stop in Moscow?" says Katzenberg, chuckling, before adding that Russia, is, after all, their single biggest grossing territory in Europe.
That a film's setting can increase its appeal to various corners of the world isn't lost on Katzenberg. He notes that DreamWorks' two "Kung Fu Panda" movies had particular success in Asia, and that the Viking fantasy "How to Train Your Dragon" scored especially well in Northern Europe.
"When considering a movie to make, we absolutely are conscious of films that are too domestic in nature and will not do them," says Katzenberg.
Another plus for the "Madagascar" franchise is consistency. McGrath and Darnell have directed all three films, which is unusual in Hollywood. Vernon was involved at the start, and though he was pulled away to direct "Shrek 2," he remained a consultant on "Madagascar" and the voice of Mason the Chimp.
"It's very rare when the same people get to see sequels through," says McGrath, who also voices the lead penguin, Skipper. "There's never been a changing of the guard throughout this series."
For many, the defining quality of the "Madagascar" films is its comedy. Carrying a written joke through the years-long, multi-tiered process of animation can be challenging, leading to constant tweaking and reevaluation.
"Sometimes it's frustrating because something will be hilarious in boards, and then when it goes into editorial, it might not be as funny," says Vernon. "We have to really weigh it and say, 'Is it not funny to us because we've seen it a thousand times or is it not funny?' It's trying to balance that constantly."
The comedians like Rock, Stiller and Sacha Baron Cohen (the lemur king Julian) are counted on to enliven things in the studio booth with occasional ad-libbing.
"They always bring me in one last time and I do like a pass where I'm almost cursing, or even I do curse sometimes," says Rock. "How far can I go in a kids' movie? How close can I get to saying (expletive) in this scene?"
But for all the journeying abroad in the vibrantly colored "Madagascar 3," one of its most intriguing visuals in the film comes back in New York.
Whereas the series previously featured the old World Trade Center in a flashback of Alex's arrival in the city (a choice Darnell and McGrath say they were sometimes criticized for), the new film contains a background image of the new One World Trade Center. The thought to include the building occurred to the directors earlier this year while they were in New York doing audio recording and saw the rising skyscraper while walking down the street.
The new WTC might still have weeks to go before the completion of construction, but in animated form, it's already done.