Madagascar is a cute, clever computer-animated caper with no greater message on its mind than that a lion might have natural instincts to eat his hippo, zebra and giraffe friends.

Oh, and the next time you’re at the zoo, keep an eye on the penguins. They’re probably up to something.

Many animated films wind themselves so tightly in the build-up to an action conclusion. Madagascar is so relaxed and loose in its slapstick, sight gags and one-liners that even the frenzied finish here is played for pratfall laughs.

Each member of the voice cast also is perfectly matched to the animal counterparts, who have sharp, angular character designs. Given the giraffe’s contortions, the exaggerated features sometimes suggest a pixilated Picasso. This stark contrast to smooth photo-realism that is animation’s gold standard only makes Madagascar more distinct.

It all starts with the penguins, a quartet of plotters who view their Central Park Zoo home as a P.O.W. camp. (Talk of their tunnel, dug with plastic spoons and propped up with Popsicle sticks, is a hilarious homage to The Great Escape.)

In their escape attempt, they mistakenly pop up in the pen of Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), who, while working out on his treadmill, daydreams of frolicking across grassy plains. Marty is desperate about his identity crisis — “I don’t know whether I’m black with white spots, or white with black spots,” he says, in a perfect kid’s-movie softening of Rock’s racial shtick. And the penguins’ breakout feeds his desire to get to the wild.

After breaking free, Marty is tracked down by his three pals — preening lion Alex (Ben Stiller), hypochondriac giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) and outspoken hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith). Of course, zoo officials misinterpret their brief Big Apple run as a sign they all want to be in natural climes.

They, along with the penguins, are packed on a ship headed to a Kenyan preserve. But the penguins have a backup plan — one that ultimately lands Marty and company on the island of Madagascar. There, they must differentiate friendship from the food chain and deal with King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen, aka “Ali G”), a loopy lemur who dubs them the “New York Giants.”

Cohen’s performance — think East Indian accents crossed with Ali G’s hissing “s” sounds — is a vocal transformation a la Peter Sellers. And his character will have children singing Reel 2 Reel’s “I Like To Move It, Move It” all summer long.

The script (co-written by co-directors Mark Darnell and Tom McGrath) is consistent and punchy. And Karey Kirkpatrick, writer of Chicken Run (DreamWorks’ other animal variation on The Great Escape) consulted on this story. Run‘s dry wit occasionally creeps in, generally through Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer), Julien’s sidekick, who is suspicious of Alex’s predatory nature.

Piled-on over-the-head movie references are the sole exception to its easy-rolling humor. Alex envisions steaks falling like rose petals a la American Beauty, and it’s an unfunny incongruous shout-out to another DreamWorks title.

There also are story-stalling mentions of such divergent titles as Cast Away and The Silence of the Lambs (the latter born from wink-wink appreciation for that film’s writer, Ted Tally, who also jumped aboard here as a consultant).

Still, the movie is a perfectly pleasant, slight summer diversion that’s worth the escape.