Ice Age

scrat3Normally I don’t much go for computer-animated movies (Antz was an exception), but Ice Age — released, ironically, by 20th Century-Fox — is about as close as digital feature-length toons have come to the glory days of Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes. This is really the first computer-generated movie I can recall that couldn’t have been done almost as well in stop-motion, and its technique doesn’t feel like the tail wagging the dog — it wears its visual virtuosity lightly. Perhaps all this is only a roundabout way of saying that Ice Age, almost alone among these bits-and-bytes things, is funny enough to win me over.

Take Scrat, the squirrel-rat mix instantly beloved by anyone who saw him exerting himself in the ads (that’s only the beginning of his trials in the movie). Scrat, easily the runaway star of Ice Age, is a wonderful wordless creation — an icon of mute, hapless indomitability to rival Wile E. Coyote. Every time he shows up toting his cherished acorn, the audience perks up, and the movie always rewards our anticipation. Resilient and single-minded, Scrat exists to be trampled and defeated. It’s terrible to say this, but Scrat is probably the best character we’ve gotten in any new movie during this wretched first quarter of 2002. You understand exactly what he wants, you want him to succeed, and you laugh when he doesn’t.

The main throughline of Ice Age is a rather routine quest. An infant boy has been separated from his village by a pack of vengeful sabertooth tigers. Enter Manfred (voice by Ray Romano), a slow-moving, jaded mammoth, and Sid (John Leguizamo), a motormouth sloth. The baby shows up at their feet; they determine to bring him back to his people. This is all Manfred needs: sighing heavily with disgust, he’s already been pushed near the limits of his patience by the craven and incurably annoying Sid. There’s a bit of Shrek-and-the-Donkey dynamic in this, but Shrek was far from the first movie to work that angle, and the perpetually dissatisfied-sounding Romano and the eager, extroverted Leguizamo make a likable team. Sighing even more heavily, Manfred agrees to help the baby.

Complicating matters is the sabertooth Diego (Denis Leary), charged by his leader with the task of capturing the infant alive. Diego hooks up with the trio, offering to lead them to the baby’s family, but really plotting to lure them into an ambush. Of course, he gradually grows to like his companions, setting up a genuine redemptive character arc — in a computer cartoon for kids? This might not have worked so well if not for the voice of Leary, who specializes in characters who growl and snarl but grudgingly let themselves soften into compassion. When a sourball like Denis Leary goes human, it counts for something, even if he’s a tiger.

There are a couple of fine setpieces — a whizzing trip through a mountain of ice (featuring some good sight gags involving things preserved in the ice), a volcanic eruption that forces our heroes to hop from peak to peak. The baby toddles along, giggling and cooing, saved from terminal cuteness by his Icelandic features — he looks like a miniature Björk and stares at everything with fascinated incomprehension. There’s a moral — “Work together and watch each other’s back” — but it isn’t pressed too hard. The animation has a deadpan-skittish quality; the comic timing harks back to Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones. There’s hardly a whiff of Disney anywhere near Ice Age, a vast relief for the Mouse-phobes among us.

There’s a slight, somewhat disquieting subtext: At least two of the heroes, Manfred and Diego, are helping a species that has been known to decimate their kind. Except for the burbling baby, mankind is not viewed fondly in Ice Age; it’s the critters’ story, and eventually a detente of sorts is reached between the species — not that it ultimately did the mammoths or the sabertooths any good. When the heroes wander off towards the frozen horizon, we may note with some sadness that two-thirds of the group wouldn’t be around much longer. But then Scrat is brought on for one last bit of business, and all of that is forgotten.

Explore posts in the same categories: animation, kids

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