When American filmmaker Tom McGrath discovered his latest film, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, was the only animated feature in the Cannes festival's official selection, he was concerned his entry might be seen as the token Hollywood animated blockbuster.
'I don't know whether [animated films are] under-appreciated,' he says. The animation-making fraternity is a 'broad company', he notes, and there are other films which are serious. 'There are many types of animation - thrillers, fantasies - but they all seem to be categorised as just animation. Of course it's discouraging for some animation filmmakers because they are all lumped in together.'
Indeed, animation can venture into exciting new territory with audacious takes on visual aesthetics and social commentary, as seen in Eric Khoo's Tatsumi (story, left), and The King of Pigs, Yeon Sang-ho's no-punches-pulled critique of social inequality in South Korea (Second Sight column, below). But Madagascar 3 isn't one of them.
The US film continues the franchise about four New York zoo animals and their bumbling antics at home and beyond - in the previous film they end up in Africa, a land they barely know despite having ancestral roots in the continent. McGrath's DreamWorks-backed film, co-directed with Eric Darnell and Conrad Vernon, returns to the globe-trotting, cultural-clash anthropomorphic comedy that's staple summer fare.
Darnell says much effort went into animating the cities the characters travel through, a journey which begins in Monte Carlo and ends in New York, via a train ride through Rome and a meeting (and stage appearance) with a travelling troupe of performing animals.
'We went to Monte Carlo and we walked every road and path, and we built the entire city on the computer,' he says. 'There are many streets we constructed but never made it into the film - but that's the kind of research you have to do when you're making this kind of film. For Madagascar 2 [Escape 2 Africa, 2008], we went on a two-week African safari.
'It's valuable that the designers hear the story.'
While indie animators explore alternative tangents with the leeway granted by technology such as rotoscoping, the big studios go for special effects. And while Pixar can still claim to anchor its films with heart-wrenching emotions - Wall-E and Up being wonderful examples - others are upping the ante on sensation. The use of 3-D is one such approach - and Madagascar 3 has caught up with this trend, becoming the first of the franchise to go stereoscopic.
'If you keep working on that technology, someday you might not have to wear glasses, and the 3-D might literally come right at you and land in the aisle,' Vernon says.
Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted opens on Thursday