July 07, 2010

Tribalism in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

In Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, four zoo animals on their way back to New York City crash-land in Africa. When they meet the native animals, Alex the lion introduces them as follows:How!


Me, Alex! Me and me friends fly! Fly, in great metal bird!

Then, plummet! [whistles] Smash ground! Go boom!

Then, here, we emerge. We offer only happiness, and good greetings.
"How"...the classic greeting supposedly used by American Indians. Alex thinks he's communicating with primitive animals, so he employs an Indian greeting and Tonto-style pidgin English. You know, because Indians are the universal signifier of primitiveness.

Just the beginning

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa contains many more examples of indigenous people as primitive savages.

  • Julien, king of the lemurs, dresses in a South Seas native costume: A grass skirt, coconuts on his chest, and a funky headdress. He's royalty on the island of Madagascar, where people never dressed this way, but that doesn't matter. He's an animal, which means he's primitive, which means he dresses like a native.

    Which native? Who cares? They're all the same: primitive, superstitious savages.

  • Because he's a hypochondriac, I guess, the animals choose Melman the giraffe to be their doctor. A modern African doctor in a white coat and stethoscope? No, a witch doctor with a headdress and a bone through his nose.

  • When Alex goes through an initiation rite, we see the other animals have painted themselves with tribal designs. I don't know if they're real or faux African designs, but that doesn't matter. The point is that the movie once again equates indigenous people with animals.

    Unlike The Lion King, which had no humans, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is firmly set in the modern world. The animals know they're on a game reserve, where they're safe from humans with guns. Alex was raised in New York because humans captured him. We even see a tourist safari led by a black African guide.

    With this level of awareness, why would the animals imitate "primitive" African tribes? Where have they even seen these designs--at a tourist shop selling trinkets? Why not imitate Africa's present culture, which includes Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Google, and IBM? Oh, yeah...because Africa is defined by half-naked spearchuckers with bones through their noses.

    Tourists go tribal too

  • When the aforementioned tourists are stranded, they too adopt tribal trappings: headdresses, facepaint, spears and clubs, and whoops and chants. Really? If you were stranded somewhere, would you "go tribal" too? Maybe after a few years, but after a few days?

    If you think about it, this isn't realistic. It's the filmmakers' conceit that going without electricity and running water turns one into a savage. If the filmmakers are able to imagine "primitive" cultures with advanced arts and sciences, it isn't obvious from this movie.

  • When the watering hole goes dry, evil lion Makunga asks Alex what he's going to do about it: a rain dance? Yeah, because rain dances are the universal signifier of an irrational, superstitious belief held by an indigenous tribe. This solidifies the implication that animals = savages = African tribes = American Indian tribes.

  • Finally, Julien the lemur king proposes sacrificing someone in a volcano to bring back the water. This isn't some sort of sincere but misguided religious belief. It's something Julien has made up on the spot. The audience knows Julien is more or less crazy, so we're not meant to take it seriously.

    But every animal goes along with the idea. They're ready and willing to throw someone to his death. Why? Because animals and indigenous people are ignorant and emotional. Like children, they're incapable of rational thought.

    Volcanic sacrifices are usually associated with the South Seas. So now the movie's "primitive" trope is complete: animals = savages = African tribes = South Seas tribes = American Indian tribes.

    What to do instead

    Painting African animals with African tribal symbols is an obvious idea. As a filmmaker, it's probably hard to resist. The question is, what's the alternative, if any? Some ideas:

    1) A Lion King approach: No human cultural objects or images among the animals.

    2) A Mad Max approach: The animals borrow items from a hodgepodge of past and present cultures. This creates a recognizable style but not one tied to a "primitive" African tribe.

    3) A sophisticated African approach: The animals borrow words and concepts from a Swahili-based culture. They don't just borrow the tribal designs. In other words, they show some evidence of having a real African culture.

    4) An invented tribal culture with no connection to any existing culture.

    I don't know which of these would work best. Or if there's another alternative. But equating Africans with witch doctors, rain dances, and human sacrifice is stereotypical.

    Despite these complaints, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is a fun movie--probably better than the original. The lemurs and penguins steal the scenes they're in. The filmmakers should jettison the hippo and giraffe and their implausible interspecies romance and go with the lion, zebra, lemurs, and penguins.

    The CGI effects are nice, as is the satire of The Lion King. The main problem is how the film wraps up the subplots in the last 20 minutes. After the well-executed setup (see trailer), the ending feels rushed and unconvincing.

    Rob's rating:  8.0 of 10.

    For more on the subject, see Tribalism in Dreams from My Father and The Best Indian Movies.


    dmarks said...

    "3) A sophisticated African approach: the animals borrow words and concepts from a Swahili-based culture. They don't just borrow the tribal designs. In other words, they show some evidence of having a real African culture."

    This was sort of done in "Lion King" also. Many of the names were Swahili. A central word and concept in the film, Hakuna Matata, was also Swahili. I think "Lion King" fits a "sophisticated African approach".

    Rob said...

    "Hakuna Matata" was a start, but they could've done much more. I'm thinking of kinship ties, social practices, religious beliefs, etc.--enough to convey the sense of a full culture.