Saturday, July 14, 2012

Unevolved: ICE AGE: CONTINENTAL DRIFT

Scrat is a bushy-tailed prehistoric squirrel who desperately desires an acorn that’s forever out of his reach. He’s a wordless, frustrated figure of bumbling slapstick with a Looney Tunes style of elegance to the purity and consistency of his motivations and adventures. Like Wile E. Coyote, Scrat’s his own worst enemy. It’s his insatiable desire for the unattainable that drives his worst impulses past self-preservation, his every inconvenience made all the more frustrating since, unlike the Road Runner, an acorn can’t even knowingly outwit him. But as much as I love Scrat, he’s simply not a good enough excuse for Blue Sky, the animation studio owned by 20th Century Fox, to keep churning out the Ice Age movies which contain within them his antics, presenting them as half-connected scenes that run parallel to the main story.

Once again we’re back with Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo), Manny the mammoth (Ray Ramano), and Diego the saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary), who first became an unlikely herd all the way back in 2002 in the good-enough film that started this whole thing. This time around, as ever, the trio finds that the world is experiencing a rapidly changing climate. Ice Age was about the coming Ice Age. Its sequel, 2006’s The Meltdown, was about a big thaw. In 2009, the third sequel left all real geologic history in its dust with Dawn of the Dinosaurs. At least in this new one, Ice Age: Continental Drift, Sid lets us know how ridiculous that was, saying, “It didn’t make any sense, but it sure was exciting!” And it was, I guess, at first, although by the time the dinosaurs were gnashing their teeth and chasing the characters to and fro I had already gotten tired of it all. I was tired of the series sometime after my second or third viewing of Ice Age, or maybe it was during my first and only time through the waterlogged Ice Age 2. The series sure has a way of making massive climate change seem like no big deal. Then again, that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise as the oil companies have been doing just that for years.

So maybe I’m not the ideal audience for Continental Drift, but then again, maybe it will mean all the more when I say that it’s adequate. It, like Dinosaurs before it, comes the closest to capturing the very low charms of the first picture. I sat there while the sound and color danced around the screen and though I wasn’t exactly involved in the antics, I didn’t hate it either. Though I thought for sure the movie was ending at it was only the halfway point, I still ended up getting a modest jolt of entertainment during the actual hectic climax. So there’s that. The animators, under the direction of Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier, are certainly talented and they have this particular cartoon universe down pat. I like the color and personality of it all, with exaggerated movements and nonplussed anachronisms. (And need I reiterate just how much I enjoy our fleeting moments with the strong, wordless frustration of Scrat?) I just wish that someone involved (maybe Michael Berg and Jason Fuchs, the credited writers?) could have thought up something more than halfway diverting to happen with it all.

In this installment, the continents are rapidly shifting and Manny is separated from his wife (Queen Latifah) and teenage daughter (Keke Palmer). Adrift on a chunk of ice with Diego, Sid, and Sid’s cranky, senile granny (Wanda Sykes), the group is accosted by furry pirates – a monkey captain (Peter Dinklage) and a crew containing a saber-toothed tiger (Jennifer Lopez), a rabbit (Aziz Ansari), a seal (Nick Frost), and a kangaroo (Rebel Wilson) – who are a big danger despite and because of their knowledge of the way back home. Speaking of back home, Manny’s wife and daughter are leading to safer ground a group that includes a hedgehog (Jake Gad) who has a crush on the younger mammoth (how’s that work?) and a group of cool teen mammoths (where are their parents?) with the voices of Drake and Nicki Minaj.

This is all pretty standard family film plotting with little to these new characters’ personalities beyond sight gags and standard-issue villainy and little added to the old characters beyond the new situations. There are typical father-daughter disagreement-healing, self-esteem-crisis-solving, stereotype-refuting, family-togetherness-affirming plot threads running every which way through the movie in ways that hit every point on the moral checklist in uncomplicated family film fashion. There’s no imagination here, no chance to let the story build or develop in any interesting way whatsoever. It just clunks from plot point to plot point, hitting all of its rote emotional beats while that nutty squirrel blasts through every once in a while to keep things entertaining, even if only for a minute or two at a time. Otherwise, it all feels so lifeless, written and performed (with the exception of Sykes and Dinklage who are new to the series and so aren’t bored with it all yet) as if an enormous machine had spit out what it guessed humans like best about these kind of movies.

Playing right now at a theater near you, there are good to great movie choices for nearly every demographic. But say you’ve already seen all of those, or maybe your power went out and you need a cool place to sit for a couple of hours. You could certainly do worse than Ice Age: Continental Drift, an adequate movie that gets exactly where you think it’s going without anything too especially surprising or enjoyable (other than Scrat) along the way, but there’s nothing to out-and-out dislike either. It’s blandly harmless. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll get quoted in an ad with that.

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