Take a lumbering, unconventional lug of a hero, and pair him with a diminutive, fast-talking, wisecracking sidekick who needs defending or rescuing from time to time.
Give them a mission — someone lost or stranded, whom the odd-couple heroes must rescue and escort to some final destination, through various dangers and obstacles.
Throw in an antagonist who has a selfish interest in the one being escorted. Then, over time, have the big lug slowly start to get attached to the one he’s escorting, creating poignancy over the anticipated parting.
That, in a nutshell, is the template for last year’s two computer-animated blockbusters, Monsters, Inc. and Shrek; and now it applies also to Chris Wedge’s Ice Age — the first feature-length film from 20th Century Fox acquisition Blue Sky Studios (which was also responsible for Wedge’s Oscar-winning animated short Bunny).
The similarities among the three films don’t end there. Big-Lug Manfred the Mammoth and Fast-Talking-Sidekick Sid the Sloth (Ray Romano and John Leguizamo, respectively) have the same Meet Cute — and the same uneasy relationship — as their Shrek counterparts, Shrek and Donkey.
In both films, Big Lug doesn’t set out to rescue Fast-Talking Sidekick, and definitely doesn’t want to be saddled with a partner, but Sidekick proves tough to get rid of. Consider the following line from Ice Age, which could just as easily have been written for Shrek: “There is no ‘we.’ There never was a ‘we.’ In fact, without me, there wouldn’t even be a ‘you.’ ”
In Shrek, the heroes’ mission was to fetch a babe (Princess Fiona) for the villain (Lord Farquaad). In Ice Age, as in Monsters, Inc., it’s a baby the heroes are trying to return to its family.
Similarities notwithstanding, all three films were well under development years before any of them was released. Anyway, what matters most is not so much who did what first, but how well it’s been done in any given case.
So here’s the skinny: Ice Age has neither the invention and creativity of Monsters nor the satiric wit of Shrek, but it still emerges as the best new family film of the season. (Only the rereleases of two family classics, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-terrestrial, reminds us of just how much more family entertainment is capable of being.)
The lion’s share of the credit for Ice Age goes to the sloth. Leguizamo (Moulin Rouge!) reportedly experimented with dozens of voices before coming up with the right sound for Sid, and he’s a hoot in the Sidekick role, rivaling Eddie Murphy in Shrek and Billy Crystal in Monsters. (It doesn’t hurt that Ice Age gives its best lines to Leguizamo.) Sid is also the best-animated character; I like the way he scoots out from under Manfred’s baleful gaze without moving his head till the last possible moment.
Almost as critical to the film’s overall appeal is a character who has no lines and hardly even interacts with the main plot: Scrat the Squirrel, whose antics trying to hide an acorn honor the silent-film slapstick tradition of the “Road Runner” and “Tom & Jerry” cartoons.
Unfortunately, as Big Lug, Manfred the Mammoth doesn’t really hold up his end. He may be as shaggy as Sully in Monsters, but he hasn’t got the latter’s charm (nor the blustery appeal of Mike Myers’s Shrek); and Manfred’s attachment to the baby isn’t as endearing as Sully’s bond with “Boo.”
Basically, Manfred’s just a gruff straight man, and Romano (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) brings comic timing, but not much heart, to the role. In fact, Manfred’s best moments are wordless: a poignant, revealing scene in which he gazes at a paleolithic cave painting that seems to come to life (à la The Prince of Egypt), and a tender moment toward the end with the baby he’s been caring for.
Incidentally, the baby is cute enough, but younger and less personable than Monsters toddler “Boo.” Of course you can’t blame an infant for being less personable than a toddler; but the fact is that “Boo” brings a level of appeal to Monsters that isn’t there in Ice Age.
Denis Leary (The Ref) rounds out the main cast as a sabertooth with the non-alliterative name of Diego. Diego begins the film with a mission from his pack leader to get the baby and return with it, but he’s got a few things to learn from Manfred about life in a herd. Of course, Diego already has a social unit — the sabertooth pack — but perhaps sabertooths in Ice Age (being nasty old predators) don’t have the same esprit de corps as cuddly mammoths.
The film’s themes of friendship and sacrifice, though generically predictable, still carry some sincerity, and Diego’s slow transition has funny and touching moments. The funniest may be Diego trying to play
Ice Age blends slapstick, occasionally sly adult humor, and, yes, a couple of poop jokes — though parents may rest assured that it doesn’t even approach Shrek-like levels of low humor. There are also a few breezily fast-moving action scenes, the best of which is a breakneck slide through the endless tunnels of an ice cave (though it doesn’t hold a candle to the sublime doorway-conveyor scene in Monsters).
Parents of very young children should know that there are a few offscreen deaths, including that of the baby’s mother, who succumbs to icy waters after struggling to save her baby; some dodos who fall into a pit of lava; and a villainous sabertooth, whom we infer is gored to death by falling icicles.
I see that I have scarcely been able to put together two paragraphs on Ice Age without mentioning Monsters, Inc. or Shrek. Deliberately or not, the film itself invites the comparison — which is too bad, because it’s a funny, entertaining picture, even though it’s not in the same league. Compared with the finely crafted stories of the earlier films, Ice Age seems, well, primitive. For example, a subplot about two vengeful rhinos is abandoned without any final payoff.
I must also report that the animation, while very solid, isn’t of the same envelope-pushing caliber as bleeding-edge efforts like Shrek, Monsters, or Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
Of course, not every film worth making or watching needs to raise the bar beyond all that has been done before. Like last year’s enjoyable Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Ice Age makes impressive use of relatively modest means, creating a beguiling cartoon world of glacial expanses, snow-capped forests, and icy caverns and bridges.
Ice Age is sprightly, funny, wholesome entertainment for (almost) the whole family. Forget about Big Fat Liar, and don’t go too far out of your way to see Return to Never Land. Ice Age is the new family film to see this season.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.