Friday, July 13, 2012

Ice Age: Continental Drift — Warm, witty and quite amusing

Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG, for action peril and mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.13.12

Chris Wedge deserves a great deal of credit.

During the decade since he co-directed Ice Age, back in 2002 , the series has generated three sequels, each of which has been as fresh, funny and visually enchanting as the first film.

Manny, right, watches in horror as he drifts farther away from his
family, with no hope of rejoining them. Diego, left, shares his large
friend's concern; even the usually frivolous Sid understands the
gravity of their situation. Sooner or later, their ice floe will start
to melt...
DreamWorks’ Shrek series (as one other example) hasn’t been nearly as consistent, with the same number of installments; Wedge, his Blue Sky Studios colleagues and their “sub-zero heroes” have scored runs with every turn at bat.

In no small measure, this is because Wedge and his rotating teams of scripters understand the importance of story. Each new film doesn’t feel like a box office-driven remake of the same basic plot elements, as often happens with lesser sequels; the “Ice Age” entries build on each other, forming distinct chapters of a much broader narrative whose limits have yet to be reached.

Plus, Blue Sky’s films are funny. Very funny.

And more than a little subversive.

Way back in the day, Disney’s animated features and cartoon shorts were acclaimed for their lush, painterly animation; backdrops and characters were beautiful, gentle and well-rounded, like a live-action sequence shot with a soft-focus lens. Disney animated scripts, as well, were gentle and family-friendly.

Warner Bros. cartoon shorts, in marked contrast, relied more on jagged lines and harsh angles, which contributed to a more daring tone that complemented the equally edgy and snarky scripts. You’d never find a cross-dressing character in a Disney cartoon, but if it suited a gag to have Bugs Bunny in drag, then the carrot-chomping rabbit would don a dress.

I view the stylistic difference between Pixar and Blue Sky in somewhat the same light. Both companies recognize the all-important blend of strong scripting and eye-pleasing visuals, but approach this recipe with different attitudes. Pixar films, like classic Disney films, are gorgeous to the point of looking frameable, with storylines that are similarly mainstream.

Blue Sky, alternatively, often relies on the same sort of exaggerated sight gags that Warner Bros. employed every time Wile E. Coyote got trapped by one of his own roadrunner-catching gadgets. The best and funniest ongoing example: the many torments and body-disfiguring catastrophes endured by poor Scrat, in his endless search for the next best acorn.

As has been true with each Ice Age installment, Scrat’s hilarious escapades serve as “bumpers” between significant events in the central narrative experienced by an ever-expanding cast of major characters.

Scrat’s attempt to bury an acorn in a frozen ice bank sets off a chain of tectonic events that proves calamitous for all our other prehistoric animal friends ... and, incidentally, separates Earth’s land masses into the seven continents we know today.

A particularly nasty seismic shift separates Manny the mammoth (Ray Romano), Diego the sabertooth tiger (Denis Leary) and Sid the slobbering sloth (John Leguizamo) from the rest of their “mixed herd.” When last seen by everybody else, Manny, Diego and Sid are drifting away from land on an ocean-bound chunk of ice. Also along for the ride: Sid’s denture-challenged Granny (Wanda Sykes).

Back on land, with an advancing mountainous wall threatening to push everybody into the sea, Manny’s better half, Ellie (Queen Latifah), and their headstrong teenage daughter, Peaches (Keke Palmer), organize the others into a rapid march to a nearby “land bridge” that will lead to safety. Trouble-prone possums Crash and Eddie (Seann William Scott and Josh Peck) mindlessly embrace this continental crack-up as another great adventure, while newcomer Louis — a mole hog voiced by Josh Gad (imagine a prehistoric meerkat) — takes a warier view.

Louis has a huge (if impractical) crush on Peaches, who treats him only as a best friend; she’s potty for the self-absorbed Ethan (hip-hop star Drake), the local Big Mammoth on Campus. Prior to their seismic-induced separation, Manny and his headstrong daughter butted heads over her coming of age issues; indeed, the bonds of family — in many different variations — keep this story’s loving heart beating throughout increasingly dire events.

Although being adrift in the ocean would be bad enough, things get much worse when Manny, Granny, Sid and Diego encounter a rag-tag pirate crew — aboard a giant ice ship — led by a fearsome, wickedly clawed orangutan dubbed Gutt (Peter Dinklage). The name, Gutt cheerfully explains to his new captives, results from his ability to “turn your innards into your outards.”

Gutt’s varied crew includes first mate Flynn (Nick Frost), a jiggly, giggly elephant seal; Squint (Aziz Ansari), an over-caffeinated bunny with a Napoleon complex; Raz (Rebel Wilson), a prehistoric kangaroo with a penchant for weapons; and Gupta (Kunal Nayyar), a prehistoric badger whose skull-and-crossbones-patterned fur makes him a perfect ship’s pennant.

Oh, and Shira (Jennifer Lopez), a cunning, sexy female sabertooth who immediately views Diego as a challenge to be bested.

Raise your hands, class: How many believe, after three films as a loner, that Diego is about to fall in love?

Gutt is determined to conscript the new arrivals; Manny is equally determined to return — somehow — to his family. Needless to say, things don’t proceed as anybody expects. Subsequent events unfold in distinct, well-paced acts, with co-directors Steve Martino (Horton Hears a Who) and Mike Thurmeier (Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs) deftly cross-cutting between the two separated sets of characters.

Each act has its own quite satisfying minor crisis and partial resolution, with everything building to an exciting climax. Scripters Michael Berg and Jason Fuchs definitely know how to establish, maintain and build our emotional investment.

Along the way, we’re equally involved with inter-personal issues, such as Diego’s efforts to talk Shira away from the dark side, and Peaches’ thoughtless snub of poor little Louis. And then there’s the mystery of Granny’s “Precious,” a pet she keeps feeding on the sly, but which nobody else has ever seen.

With a voice cast this talented — and this laden with masters of split-second comic timing — it’s difficult to single out one performance over another. Leguizamo continues to be a stitch as the speech-mangling Sid, particularly when stricken by paralysis-inducing berries; Sykes is every bit as funny as the similarly saliva-spewing Granny.

Romano remains the eternally put-upon husband he played so well on his own TV series, with an equally clueless view of fatherhood thrown in for good measure. Dinklage is impressively nasty and ferocious as the villainous Gutt, while Gad grants the diminutive Louis a sense of nobility that far outstrips his size.

Scott and Peck are always a hoot as Crash and Eddie, and, yes, Lopez is appropriately seductive and shrewd as Shira.

Scrat — whose frenzied shrieks and moans are voiced now, as always, by Wedge himself — provokes gut-busting laughter at every turn.

Martino, Thurmeier and cinematographer Renato Falcao make excellent use of this film’s 3-D imaging, with exhilarating sequences that justify the premium admission price. John Powell’s rip-roaring score adds to the frantic action, while also nicely complementing (for example) gentler moments between father and daughter mammoths.

In all respects, Ice Age: Continental Drift is a hilarious, suspenseful and inventively amusing romp, with a strong emotional core. I can’t wait for Part Five.

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