Four neurotic animals, still separated from the zoo in New York they call home, make their way around Europe with a travelling circus, in an attempt to get back to the States. Oh joy, it’s time for another Madagascar film.

There seemed to be a collective groan from animation fans round the world as they contemplated yet another adventure with the team, as they learnt stuff about themselves and became better friends even in the face of adversity. It all felt so dull, so unoriginal. The prospect of a third entry into the tired franchise was not one that was greeted with heaps of enthusiasm. What a refreshing surprise, then, that the resulting film defies those expectations, and turns out to be a zany slapstick comedy in which no one really learns anything but a lemur does fall in love with a motorbike riding bear.

Take, for example, when Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) is fired out of a cannon stuffed with dynamite, and he is projected through the air for a seemingly impossible amount of time. On his way he wiggles around gleefully, cuts shapes in clouds and revels in the feeling of flying. This airborne experience is soon cut short by a sudden meeting with a cliff face. Moments later he stands up, unhurt, before rappelling down the cliff face and saving an Italian sea lion (Martin Short) in the process. Welcome to the world of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, where physics (and, for that matter, plot) take a back seat to make way for the closest CG animation has come to making a modern day Looney Tunes. Here are bulging eyes, impossibly painful pratfalls and animals running far faster than they have a right to, in a way that would make Wile E. Coyote proud.

The set up is established quickly, and with minimal attention to such insignificances as plot. The four plucky heroes go to Monte Carlo because, well… just because. The penguins are there, and it’s an excuse to get them into Europe. How do they get there? Swimming, obviously. It’s an early indication of what to expect: each development in the story is simply a way into the next possible spectacular set piece. And they really are quite good – an early chase through Monte Carlo is the highlight, a madcap careen around the tight corners of the principality, as they are chased by the fearsome Capitain Du Bois (Frances McDormand), the head of animal control. It’s so wildly inventive and unpredictable, taking full opportunity of the physics-free possibilities of animation and featuring a banana-bullet machine gun. These sequences are the reason you’ll pay the entrance fee to the cinema – kids and adults alike will fail to care about the story, but will love these Warner Bros style escapades.

As such, the characters don’t have much to do here, but as the characters are hardly beloved by all, that’s no bad thing. By now, Ben Stiller‘s Alpha lion Alex, Rock’s crack-a-lackin’ zebra Marty, David Schwimmer‘s hypochondriac giraffe Melman and Jada Pinkett Smith‘s sassy hippo Gloria are all tired and uninvolving figures. Their voice talents are somewhat distracting as it is so clearly Ben Stiller and Chris Rock behind the digital animals that they never really emerge as characters to invest in. A new bunch of circus animals similarly fail to connect, and it is only McDormand’s Du Bois who makes an impact. She’s a fearsome Terminator of an animal control expert, sniffing and singing her way towards the prey. Her supernatural abilities to capture animals and rouse her bandaged comrades make her the most fearsome villain of the series yet.

The character animation remains rather blocky and textureless, too. Admittedly, this is only by modern standards of animation, when a mop of messy ginger hair becomes a thing of beauty in films like Brave. The digital artists do excel, however, in two key areas. Firstly, the circus show – seemingly an homage to Cirque du Soleil – is a wonderful display of bright lights and amazing acrobatics. Clearly letting their imaginations rip, the animators create a blur of shapes and colours that dazzles the audience, using clever transitions to beautiful effect and creating a truly impressive show. Secondly, they excel in the action sequences, understanding exactly what makes someone getting sat on by an elephant funny. For Madagascar 3 really is a very funny film. It’s not especially clever, it’s unlikely to move even the most emotionally fragile, but it is a brilliant piece of entertainment that belies it’s origins in a franchise that very few cared about.