I wasn't sure what to expect going in. I have not seen the first movie. That doesn't actually present a problem, as it turns out, because the movie does a great job of catching the viewer up. A lion cub named Alex escapes hunters and survives an ocean voyage to Manhattan Island, where he becomes a local celebrity and grows up with a giraffe, a hippo and a zebra. The previous film saw them fall in among the creatures of Madagascar after a plane crash. This time, early in the plot, they hatch a scheme to return to New York, in a comically cobbled-together plane, with an equally comic crew. They make it as far as Africa, and find themselves, for the first time, among their own kinds.
At the beginning, the references, quips, and quirk-establishment all comes so fast and furious that it's dizzying. Once the action turns to Africa, however, the tone and the pace of the story even out. There are some jokes that are possibly less than family-friendly, but they are so subtle as to slide under kiddie radar.
There is a lot here that we have seen before: an animal with a unique talent, which creates tension with his parents (Alex would rather dance than fight); an evil lion plotting against the king of the pack and his cub; Eddie Murphy's voice on four feet; funny penguins and monkeys; and a dialogue-free sub-plot involving a chase with a small creature. There is even, arguably, an extended shout-out to Joe vs. the Volcano. However, all of it has enough of a fresh spin to be enjoyable.
The story of Marty the zebra addresses something which I don't think I've seen addressed in kids movie's before; that is the idea that it is okay not to be unique...and that yet, at the same time, you're always more unique than you think you are. Gloria the Hippo finds herself in a classic movie dilemma, one part Walt Disney and one part John Hughes. She is torn between the popular male who only likes her for her for her looks, and a more awkward one who loves her for who she is. (As a fascinating side-note in our weight-obsessed society, the hippos have a “bigger is better” mentality.)
David Schwimmer's Melman was probably my favorite character, and the denouement of an extended shark attack was the thing that made me laugh the hardest. Madagascar 2 was a pleasure, and I look forward both to the first and future installments.