There’s a simple, unwritten rule about sequels: generally the farther you get from the original, the more stale the franchise gets. But as inventive and entertaining as the original Madagascar was, it pales in comparison to Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted— easily the most pure, unadulterated, kiddie-sized craziness to hit theaters so far this year.

Not only are the Central Park Zoo’s most famous ex-denizens back (including, yes, the Penguins), there’s a whole ark full of additional characters to help keep things fresh, too. Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), and Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) are still in Africa with King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen), right where we left them. They’re waiting for the Penguins and Chimps to get back from the casino in Monte Carlo (seems logical enough) with the superplane, the gang’s ticket back to New York.

Eventually they decide to make a swim for it themselves, landing in Monaco, plotting a Mission Impossible-style break-in at the casino, and convincing Skipper, Kowalski, and their buddies to fly home.

Alas, they never counted on running afoul of Captain DuBois (Frances McDormand), ze tête de animal control (and avid taxidermy fan… with a lion-sized hole on her trophy wall).

After one of the better car chase sequences since, well, Ronin, the gang of four ends up on a circus train headed for Rome, and then– well, then things get really nutty.

Co-directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, who also helmed the prior two films, have upped their game yet again– this time teaming with Conrad Vernon (Monsters vs. Aliens) for an amazing, Technicolor joyride through Europe. The pace of Most Wanted is rarely less than break-neck, and the visuals make a Japanese game show look blasé by comparison.

Most Wanted also benefits from the wise decision by screenwriters Darnell and Noah Baumbach (The Fantastic Mr. Fox) to spread the wealth. Bryan Cranston (as Russian circus tiger Vitaly), Jessica Chastain (as Italian cheetah Gia), and Martin Short (as dimwit sea lion Stefano) are just a few of the new characters who up the riotous level even more.

The kiddie jokes fly at lightning speed, with ample material for adults, too (Enya, the Canadian work ethic, and Edith Piaf’s classic “Je Ne Regrette Rien” are but a few of the random things riffed here).

There’s also a subtly-placed mediation on friendship and loyalty, but don’t worry– you’ll be so distracted by the aquatic cobras and jet packs that you may not even notice it. The kid-in-a-candy-shop zaniness reaches its peak at the circus performance in London, which may just leave you feeling like you’re being dropped head-first into Willy Wonka’s warehouse.

Strap yourself in and get ready to laugh yourself silly; three rings aren’t nearly enough for this circus.

4.5/5 stars