You could call "Ice Age" "'Shrek' With Frostbite" or "'Monsters, Inc.' on Ice," and you wouldn't be far off. That's how closely this new computer-animated film duplicates and combines the plots of its predecessors.
No, this tale of interspecies cooperation 20,000 years ago isn't a case of plagiarism, merely an indication of how completely familiar and regrettably formulaic this film's conception, plot and dialogue are. It's regrettable because director Chris Wedge has done nifty, amusing things on the visual side, joining bright new technology to a story as old as, well, the Ice Age.
Wedge, who won an Oscar for the animated short "Bunny," does his best work when none of his characters is talking. His style is a kind of storybook photo-realism, giving those characters the unusual look of living and breathing plush toys. One of the highlights of the film, for instance, is an elaborate visual jest that is more of a running gag than part of the actual plot. It involves a hyperactive little beast referred to as Scrat (for "prehistoric squirrel/rat") who is dedicated body and soul to capturing a large acorn and burying it in the frozen ground.
The lengths Scrat (with expressive grunts supplied by Wedge himself) goes to and the chaos his determination triggers bring to mind the manic brio of the brilliant animator Chuck Jones and his catastrophe-causing gang of Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote and the rest. The talking parts of "Ice Age," however, are not nearly as much fun.
It's not just that the film's overall philosophy of joining a simple-minded tale for tots with glib dialogue to amuse their parents has gotten stale with overuse, it's that the particular story on view has, by complete coincidence, been seen so recently.
Like "Shrek," "Ice Age" follows an odd couple of unlikely friends, taking us along as a wisecracking sloth (voiced by John Leguizamo), rather than a wisecracking donkey, attaches himself to a sullen, reluctant mammoth (Ray Romano) who'd rather be left alone, instead of a sullen, reluctant monster who feels the same.
Speaking of monsters, just as "Monsters, Inc.'s" story line focused on its main characters' determination to get a cute toddler back home, so the animals in "Ice Age" have to return a wayward toddler to a human family. There are probably more than two stories in the universe of animation, but you wouldn't guess it from this film.
Although this familiarity is disconcerting, it's not what's wrong with "Ice Age." Neither is the film's sentimentalism, nor its determination to include what it considers amusing modern touches, such as references to global warming and a shot of a Stonehenge-type building linked to the line "Modern architecture ... it'll never last."
The problem rather is the wholesale embracing of what has become de rigueur in animation, the practice of treating major characters as if they were stand-up comics working a room in Las Vegas.
As written by Michael Berg and Michael J. Wilson from a story by Wilson, this relentless, all-wise-guys-all-the-time approach tries way too hard and gets tiring in no time at all.
That's especially true of Sid the Sloth, an animal so out-and-out irritating he's been intentionally left behind by his family as it migrated south.
Sid links up with Manfred the Mammoth, a moody loner who, for no apparent reason, is headed north. Though chatterbox Sid keeps insisting, "You and me make a great team," Manny keeps responding with "Isn't there someone else you can annoy?"
"Ice Age's" other plot strain involves a group of saber-toothed tigers so furious at humans they plan on stealing and snacking on a human infant. A tiger named Diego (Denis Leary) is deputized to do the deed, and he's nonplussed to find that by a series of coincidences, that infant is now in the care of Manfred and Sid, "a bit of an odd couple."
Like everyone else on screen, Diego finds Sid hard to take, letting him know "you're a little low on the food chain to be mouthing off." Still, all three beasts end up traveling together on a reluctant rescue mission to return the infant to its "human herd."
Although "Ice Age's" forced glib dialogue often makes you wish you could turn down the sound, the film's sense of physical adventure, its gift for creating wild rides like a journey down a slippery ice funnel, is considerably more entertaining.
Aside from Scrat's antics, "Ice Age's" most inspired episode involves an ineptly militaristic group of dodos (unlikely in these temperatures, but never mind), masters of a kind of Tae Kwan Dodo martial arts and doltishly determined to "Protect the Dodo Way of Life." Given how amusing it can sometimes be, it's too bad that "Ice Age" has adopted Sid's overbearing personality rather than the dodo's. That beast may be extinct, but it apparently knew a thing or two about making people laugh.
MPAA rating: PG, for mild peril. Times guidelines: "Mild" is the right word, appropriate for even very young children.
A Blue Sky Studios production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Chris Wedge. Co-director Carlos Saldanha. Producer Lori Forte. Executive producer Christopher Meledandri. Screenplay Michael Berg and Michael J. Wilson and Peter Ackerman. Story by Michael J. Wilson. Editor John Carnochan. Music David Newman. Production design Brian McEntee. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes.
In general release.