Admittedly, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is pretty depressing. But what if raconteur boat boy Marlow was replaced with an egomaniacal anthropomorphic zoo lion? And what if good old Kurtz had a dance party to I Like to Move It? Great news: Dreamworks answered these questions and more in 2005 with their iconic film Madagascar.
Let’s go over the basics, shall we?
- The humans in Madagascar are really representative of the colonialism that drives capitalist endeavors in Heart of Darkness–– always lurking in the background, all-powerful, and uhh, definitely evil. (“Don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” the animals say.)
- Those four penguins? The company that commissions the journey. While they have a vague objective, it’s morally ambiguous (to say the least), and as independent as they are, they’re still ultimately under human jurisdiction.
- Next up is the riverboat crew– Alex the Lion is the clear Marlow figure here. It’s not really up for debate. The rest of the gang (Marty, Melman, Gloria) are there too, but as comedic as they are, they’re largely inconsequential (aside from Marty… but we’ll get to that).
- Perhaps the most identifiable character in Heart of Darkness is the ambiguous jungle deity called Kurtz. Of course, when King Julien first appears on screen, he immediately stands out as Madagascar’s analogous figure. The “self-proclaimed lord of the lemurs” takes no shit and is basically blindly worshipped by the entire lemur population.
- There’s even a character to mirror the young Russian man: little Mort is perhaps the most affected by Julien’s omnipotence, and defends him throughout.
Now that we understand the framework, we can really explore the theme of moral isolation that drives Alex’s character. Just as Marlow has to make choices independent of any advice, Alex becomes isolated from his friends because of his carnivorous hunger.
- Right out the gate, Alex resists any idea that he might have fun (let alone belong) in “the wild.” While his friends choose to enjoy their displacement, he isolates himself… alone with his desire to return to the city.
- Alex is the only purely carnivorous guy in the crew. His instinctive desire to eat meat isolates him further, and he begins to have hallucinative dreams about EATING HIS FRIENDS. It’s wild.
- He becomes the embodiment of the famous quote from Heart of Darkness: “We live as we dream–– alone.” As he is isolated in his dreams, he becomes so in life.
- This only drives him further from them: as he begins to transform into the wild animal inherent in his being, he must move away from his friends. His subconscious desire to LITERALLY EAT THEM is something he wants to avoid as much as possible.
“We live as we dream–– alone.” –Heart of Darkness
- Alex begins to recognize the synthesis between the city personality he has and the “wild” nature of his existence. When Marty, his closest friend of the bunch, tells him how much he’s missed, Alex begins to reconcile his nature with the love he has for his friends.
- With Marty’s help, Alex decides that he can be with his friends (and protect them from harm!) without eating them. Amor vincit omnia, and all that jazz.
- The decision brings the group back together, and with the boat provided by the penguins–– who, if you’ll remember, represent the corporation–– they decide to return “home” to New York.
Seems like a happy ending, right? Unlike Heart of Darkness, which is famous for its ambiguous ending. However, in its last few moments, Madagascar plunges back into ambiguity with the two following incidents:
- Alex makes a “joke” and asks what they’re going to eat, which elicits side-eye from the whole crew.
- As they are about to set sail, the penguins are pictured on the beach asking: “Do you think we should tell them the boat’s out of gas?”
The implication that Alex will revert to blind carnivory if they were to run out of resources plus the confirmation by the penguins that they will run out of resources put the actual fate of the crew in a real grey area, and the audience has to decide for themselves what goes down offscreen.
Now, it’s unclear whether Dreamworks creators have even read Heart of Darkness, let alone based an entire movie on it. But what this comparison makes evident is that, in the words of Hannibal Buress, pretzels is the same.