Madagascar’s Four Unlikely Evangelists
February 8, 2020
David R. Weiss
You won’t recognize their names among the four evangelists in the New Testament, but Marty, Alex, Melman, and Gloria count as ironic evangelists in my book. Taken together their exploits in the 2005 animated kids film Madagascar offer an unexpectedly vivid lesson about the gospel. Ironic because the story seems not even to notice the power of the message hidden within it. But once you realize it, you can’t un-realize it—which makes it a pretty effective lesson.
The movie, you might recall, features the antics of a talking zebra (Marty), lion (Alex), giraffe (Melman), and hippo (Gloria), who, through a series of misadventures find themselves relocated from a city zoo to the island of Madagascar. Every movie (even a kids flick) needs a crisis to resolve; it’s the emotional engine that drives the plot. In this film, alongside much silliness aimed at both kids and their parents, the crisis that emerges is Alex’s appetite. The other three animals, all herbivores, find Madagascar a relative restaurant of delights. But Alex, the lion, has always dined on raw steak. Never having had to stare his dinner in the eyes before eating it, Alex is understandably distressed as he begins to see every creature on the island—including his friends—as potential food. How can he possibly eat meat that talks?!
Fast forward to the end of the movie (SPOLIER ALERT) and the crisis is resolved when the near-frantic animals discover that Alex can survive by eating the fish who swim in the waters off the coast of the island. And eating fish allows Alex to satisfy his hunger in a way that satisfies even the most sentimental viewer. Why? Because, of all the animals in Madagascar—and quite unlike the counterparts in Finding Nemo—the fish don’t talk.
Lacking any lines (they’re the only animals in the entire film that aren’t personified with speech) they never become characters in their own right. And having been rendered voiceless, they become, quite literally, fair game for resolving the crisis without anyone feeling bad for them. If the fish in Madagascar had been given voices like the sea creatures in Finding Nemo, you can bet more than a few kids would’ve bawled in protest while Alex resolved his issues at the fish’s expense.
Sometimes insight comes from unexpected places … like an animated children’s movie. Madagascar, if we dare listen beyond the giggles, speaks a powerful truth about the precarity of those left—in fact, rendered—voiceless in our society. You can quibble that carnivores must “by nature” eat meat. True enough, but a film filled with talking animals isn’t finally about “nature”; it’s about friendship. And, ultimately (although the movie itself doesn’t go this far because it’s content to let the voiceless fish fix everything) it’s about human society.
The ironic message (unintended but crystal clear if you’re a kid who knows in other tales that fish also talk) is that until every person becomes a character with a voice, you really don’t know whether you’ve resolved your issues or not.
Thus, Marty, Alex, Melman, and Gloria are indeed evangelists, luring us to a vantage point where we can begin to reckon the conditions for a society that truly includes everyone. And the measure for that society is NOT the fortunes (economic, social, or otherwise) of those with the most agency, but the fate of those with the least.
Finally, Jesus makes the same point in Matthew 25:31-46 where he calls us to bequeath our best deeds toward “the least of these, all members of my family”—as those in whom we see the visage of Jesus himself. But lest we make this a litmus test of “Christian” behavior, the heart of Jesus’ words is that authentic human community dawns when we intuit the full presence of humanity in each person we encounter.
That message, from Madagascar to Matthew 25, is crucial for these times. As climate disruption creeps (and races) across the globe our tendency will be to “solve” things in ways that forfeit the future of those rendered voiceless. We see this playing out right now as Trump and the GOP relentlessly renders immigrants and indigenous persons, women and union workers, LGBTQ persons and family farmers, black lives and whole landscapes, voiceless—as though it were even possible to “make America great again” by denying regard to those pushed beyond the bounds of our concern. That MAGA path runs hell-ward.
Marty, Alex, Melman, and Gloria might be ironic evangelists, but their good news isn’t ironic at all. The path to any future worthy of our humanity is one that brings all voices into speech. That future will be complicated and messy—but it is the only future that is also human. And that makes it gospel, even if it comes by way of four animated animal evangelists.
David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn(at)gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.