The holiday season semi-officially arrives at theaters this weekend with the opening of the animated Madagascar: Escape 2 Africafrom DreamWorks Animation and Paramount. Box office prognosticators are forecasting a $45-65-million debut for the film. The original Madagascarearned $47.2 million during its opening over the Memorial Day weekend in 2005 (and $61 million over four days). The comedy Role Modelsis expected to place second with about $7-10 million, while Soul Men, featuring the late Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson may wind up with $6-9 million.


Movie critics say that if the team that produced the latest Madagascar movie had spent as much time on the screenplay as they did on the computer animation, they would probably have created a memorable film. Manohla Dargis in the New York Timescomplains that the mane of one of the lions "registers as more realistic than any of his words or emotions, but it's also a bummer." It's an opinion shared by Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post, who writes: "Filmed with impressive technical sophistication, this sequel ... possesses some dazzling visuals, right down to the hair on its main character's mane. But it also suffers from a plethora of subplots, suggestive humor and attempts to wink knowingly at parents yawning through yet another matinee with the kids." Carrie Rickey in the Philadelphia Inquirer says that the movie is really an overinflated version of the original and adds, "With its stylized menagerie resembling plush creatures on a Toys R Us shelf, M2 surely will appeal to undemanding viewers age 6 and younger. Yet unlike Pixar films, this busy and noisy film has too-generic a story and too-undistinguished a look to offer much for those kids' older siblings and their parents." Lou Lumenick in the New York Postsays it's not the kind of film -- like those produced by Pixar -- that is meant to entertain adults and children alike and warns parents that "it's not something you'd particularly want to watch with the kids." He concludes: "Personally, I'd wait for the DVD and use Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa as an electronic baby sitter."


Role Models,several critics suggest, belongs to the Judd Apatow school of movie comedies, or as Stephen Holden in the New York Timesdescribes them, "arrested-development comedies." That's not necessarily bad, says Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times, who observes, "A formula plot works if you're laughing at the plot and not noticing the formula." Claudia Puig in USA Today concludes that the movie is "a rare mainstream buddy comedy that deftly blends the endearing and the vulgar and intersperses raucous humor with subtle wit." Kyle Smith in the New York Postadvises that it's "excellent fun for males in the mental age bracket of 14 to 22, which is most males." But Roger Moore in the Orlando Sentinel suggests that Paul Rudd, who conceived the movie and stars in it and is part of Judd Apatow's "inner circle," may be playing copy-cat. He concludes: "As funny as some bits are ... they best you can say about Role Models is that it's imitation Apatow. It lacks the master's crude touch."


Soul Men may be the first movie ever released in which twofeatured players died after filming ended and before the movie hit the screens. Virtually each review mentions the missing two souls, Bernie Mac, in a lead role, and Isaac Hayes, in a smaller role, and praises their past contributions to the popular culture. Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicleremarks that the two deaths cast a pall over the movie. "Try to watch it as a movie, and you may find yourself seeing it more as a precious artifact of a sadly truncated career. Mac was a good comedian and a fine comic actor, who was improving and deepening every year." Noting that in his previous big-budget movies, Mac had been required to curb his tongue, A.O. Scott in the New York Times, comments, that Soul Men "not only allows him room to explore the nuances and inflections of profanity, but it also pairs him with Samuel L. Jackson ..., certainly no slouch when it comes to wringing poetry out of the blue Anglo-Saxon linguistic heritage. To say that the chief pleasure of Soul Men is watching these two men swear at each other is in no way to sell it short." You can easily imagine Roger Ebert choking up as he began writing his review for the Chicago Sun-Times: "Soul Men is the one that's really going to make you miss Bernie Mac. He's so filled with life and energy here that it's hard to believe ... well, anyway. It will make you miss him." On the other hand, Bob Strauss begins his review in the Los Angeles Daily Newsthis way: "It grieves me to report that Bernie Mac's posthumous movie release, Soul Men, hardly does the great comedian justice. It's poorly plotted even by the low standards of road-trip comedies and vulgar in ways that try patience far more often than they inspire laughs."


Pixar Animation Studios director Andrew Stanton says that the Richmond, CA-based company has gone to extraordinary lengths to preserve precise details in its Blu-ray version of WALL-E, due to be released on Nov. 18. TheVideo Business website quoted Stanton as saying, "This is the first time where a format exactly represents how good a film looks in the building here. ... It used to be that you'd only go downhill from here after [creating films in the studio]. We sweat over every pixel." Pixar's general manager, Jim Morris, suggested that the extra work poured into the Blu-ray edition, was initially a matter of Pixar pride. "This is a filmmaker's dream. They didn't think that anyone cared about that level of technicality as much as they do, and now they are happy that people do."


A unit of the American Medical Association and the Motion Picture Association of America are at odds over the depiction of smoking in movies aimed at children. As reported byUSA Today, a study conducted by the AMA Alliance, a volunteer branch, concluded that since 2002, 57 percent of movies rated G, PG, or PG-13 have featured characters smoking; of just the PG-13 films, the study said, 67 percent have featured smoking. The AMA Alliance accused the MPAA of failing to make good on its promise to include smoking in assessing a film's suitability for showing to children. However, Seth Oster, a spokesman for the MPAA maintained that its own studies show that 75 percent of the films that featured smoking over the past four years were rated R and that the ratings descriptions now incorporate such phrases as "glamorizes smoking" and "pervasive smoking." The motion picture industry takes very seriously the issue of smoking in films," Oster said.