Featuring a whole zoo full of celebrity voice talents—Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, and more—Dreamworks' latest animated feature, Madagascar, refused to be crushed by the Dark Side of the Force. It scored an impressive opening weekend (approximately $61 million), not far behind Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith ($70 million), which held on to the top spot for the second straight week.

In his first directorial effort since 1998's underrated Antz, Eric Darnell delivers a story about the misadventures of mismatched creature companions who have escaped the extravagant luxuries of New York's Central Park zoo in order to seek their natural habitats. Together, Alex the Lion (Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Rock), Melman the Giraffe (Schwimmer), and Gloria the Hippo (Pinkett Smith) cause enough trouble to earn them a one-way tickets to Kenya. But the voyage runs into trouble, and they wind up in … well, check the title.

Camerin Courtney (Christianity Today Movies) says, "As the movie progresses, the humor threshold gets lower and lower. And just as the movie runs out of steam, the final credits save the day."

She also writes, "Though it might seem nitpicky to note plot flaws in a cartoon, all I really want is a moral to the story—a pretty standard element in kid flicks, no? In Finding Nemo: Don't let fear rule your life. In Shrek: True beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. In Madagascar: well, I'm not really sure. Don't eat your friends? Be a vegetarian? Don't stray too far from home because your more animal instincts will take over? Deny your natural makeup for the good of your friends—and society at large?"

Peter T. Chattaway, a regular critic at Christianity Today Movies, reviewed Madagascar for CanadianChristianity.com. It's a positive review, but perhaps his most interesting observation is that the movie "had me wondering about the place of the food chain in Christian thought. Psalm 104 celebrates how lions 'roar for their prey and seek their food from God,' but Isaiah 11 and 65 say lions will become peaceful vegetarians when the messianic age dawns. To what degree are these passages poetic, and to what degree are they meant to be taken literally? … Madagascar hardly settles these themes, but it explores them in an interesting way."

Jonathan Rodriguez (Christian Spotlight) sees the film as highlighting "the importance of friendship." And he confesses, "Madagascar made me laugh quite a bit, which I wasn't really expecting from this particular animated film. I suspect that parents may enjoy it just as much as their children."

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"Visually, Madagascar is a delight," writes David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). But he says the beginning is stronger than what follows. "Once the action switches to the island setting, the film's sharp wit gives way to a slapstick brand of broad cartoon comedy which, though quite funny at times, is more sight gags than story."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says the film's message is "buried and weak," and tries to explain it: "Madagascar seems to be saying that we should be happy wherever we are in life, and that we should recognize the importance of loyalty and friendship. In a nod to animal activists, it also points to the beastly nature of animals, and how we can only tame that nature so much." She expects it will "please families and children alike."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "This animated feature lampoons stories that sentimentalize the wild kingdom. Still, you leave the theater wondering what result you were supposed to root for—that the animals make it back to their safe zoo existence or learn to live 'authentically' as wild animals." The screenplay, he observes, seems to have been "written by a committee." But he's happy to see "the power of friendship and self-sacrifice" exalted.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The computer animated artwork is sharp and clean. The characters are distinct and the humor is somewhat clever. So what's the problem?" He blames the cast and "bland vocal performances." He adds, "The film explores an unusually deep subject, albeit in a superficial way."

Mainstream critics offer many varying responses, most of them positive. Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) calls the film "a classical gas" and notes that it "benefits from not having any heavy moral to impart or life lesson to teach. It simply wants you to crack a smile, and … it has no trouble managing that."

The Longest Yard a far cry from worthwhile

Director Peter Segal (Anger Management, 50 First Dates) is working with Adam Sandler again, this time with Chris Rock joining the team in The Longest Yard, a remake of Robert Aldrich's 1974 film about prison inmates who challenge their guards to a football match.

"I enjoyed The Longest Yard, Hollywood's latest forays into remake-world," says Mary Lasse (Christianity Today Movies). She concludes, "While entertaining, The Longest Yard is not without its red flags. There's just no getting around the fact that this is a 'prison movie,' and it's thus rough around the edges."

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Other Christian press critics said it's more than just "rough around the edges."

"With some 150 obscenities, countless sexual references (mostly homosexual) and two pornographic videos (one heterosexual, one homosexual) thrown in, it's obviously a sex comedy—and mostly a gay sex comedy," says Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk). She calls it "the most foul, violent and perverted PG-13 film I have ever seen in my life."

"Trite, profane, lewd and highly inaccurate"—those are words used by Kathy Bower (Christian Spotlight), who is definitely not a Sandler fan. "Sandler is a star because he can make silly voices, noises, and get away with making crude, cruel, and meaningless sarcastic observations in such a way that his fans believe he is delivering humor."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) is dismayed by the movie's cliché s, the "abjectly bad filmmaking," and content that includes "excessive violence, sexual perversity and the torrent of foul language that effectively bury this stinker."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it "a lackluster sports comedy that is but a poor imitation of a far superior film." He says the script "offers no tension, few laughs, and an obscene abundance of product placements."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "While sympathies will obviously lie with the underdog inmates, viewers may find it difficult rooting for hardened convicts who, for the most part, are motivated by long-simmering rage—though understandably so—against their vicious and racist keepers." He concludes, "The new movie captures the spirit of the original … but unfortunately it also ratchets up the brutality and vulgar humor."

Mainstream critics are throwing penalty flags all over the field.

Ninth Day Earns Early Raves

Talk about range! Ulrich Matthes, who played Hitler's Minister of Propaganda in Downfall earlier this year, stars in The Ninth Day as an anti-Nazi priest.

The Ninth Day, which screened at the Seattle International Film Festival and will play in limited release around the country in the coming weeks, was directed by Volker Schlöndorff (The Handmaid's Tale). It is based on the journals of Father Jean Bernard, one of many priests held captive in a Nazi concentration camp at Dachau in 1940. Father Bernard's writings provided the basis for the central character, Henri Kremer (Matthes). Early in the film, Kremer is released from the camp, but his troubles are just beginning. During his reunion with his family, he is interrupted by a Gestapo agent who interrogates him. Kremer is told he has nine days to convince his bishop to work with the Nazis, or he'll have to go back to the concentration camp. Knowing any attempt to escape this sentence will send his fellow priests to their execution, Kremer is forced to decide what path is best.

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The film focuses not on military conflict, but on theological debates. And in its portrayal of the conflict around and within the Catholic church during World War II, it earns high praise from Christian film critics, who note that audiences are rarely given a proper impression of the predicament in which Catholics found themselves during the days of Hitler's atrocities.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) is thoroughly impressed, calling it "an intelligent and emotionally forceful meditation on faith, redemption and the cost of true discipleship." Reminded of the "strong moral dilemma" at the heart of A Man for All Seasons, and impressed with the performances, he says this "dialogue-heavy" film "has a life-and-death urgency." He also rates this film as "one of the most beautiful depictions of the priesthood ever filmed."

Also enthusiastic, Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says the film depicts the horrors of the Holocaust "with stark objectivity and restraint." And he adds that, while it is not "a rah-rah apologetic for the role of Catholic leaders during WWII," it does acknowledge "the difficulty and ambiguity inherent in so complex a subject." In short, he's pleased that the film does not make the usual, simplistic swipe at Catholicism. "The broad-brush charge of ecclesiastical complicity has enjoyed such wide and uncritical acceptance in mainstream culture … that for a film to take a more nuanced view, to depict priests and bishops opposed to and suffering under the Nazi regime, and even to put the pope's 'silence' into historical perspective seems almost a minor miracle."

In a new interview with Volker Schlöndorff, Greydanus observes, "The Ninth Day is full of biblical resonances and imagery: washing of feet; a boy giving bread; a convergence of lines reminiscent (though not the same as) of Christ's last words from the cross ('God has forsaken us … It is finished … Father, forgive me'); life-saving water that tastes of iron and thus of blood." He asks Schlöndorff if these were deliberate echoes of Scripture; the director's answer is very interesting.

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Mainstream critics are also moved. David Denby (The New Yorker) writes, "This film is powerful, concise, fully sustained. In movies, the concentration camps have been dramatized so often that further representation of them threatens to become kitsch, but Schlöndorff, working in brief strokes, rapidly sets up the world of labor, brutality, and death without resorting to cliché . For American audiences, he has a new subject: the sufferings of the anti-Nazi Catholic clergy." A.O. Scott (New York Times) says it "succeeds in illuminating an almost unimaginably dark story."

For a list of the film's locations and playdates, click here.