I challenge you to watch that wordless two-minute preview for Ice Age and
not laugh. You know, the sadistic one where the scrawny scrat (squirrel + rat,
or maybe just short for muskrat) tries to find a place to store his acorn, and
ends up setting off a massive avalanche. It's so simple, a throwback to the
Wyle E. Coyote cruelty-to-animals school of comedy. And yet it has a spare elegance
to it. A dead-on sense of timing and a runt of a character who looks like he
was born to have anvils dropped on him.
I was slightly disappointed to find out that Ice Age is not actually
a 90-minute computer-generated Roger Rabbit cartoon. There's actually
a pretty typical Disney-esque story to go with it. Manny the Mammoth (Ray Romano,
sounding like the grumpy love child of Cliff and Norm from Cheers) and
Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo from Moulin Rouge, Spawn, and Romeo
+ Juliet) team up with a shady Sabertooth Tiger named Diego (Denis Leary)
to return a lost human child to its tribe. But Ice Age is still worth
going to, even if you don't have kids.
Ice Age is Twentieth Century Fox's foray into the blooming market of
computer-animated movies (Shrek, Monsters Inc., Final Fantasy,
Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius). I don't know that the animation is groundbreaking
or eye-popping (though the fur is pretty impressive, as is the way that the
skin stretches over the muscles in Diego's legs). But the animation more than
serves its purpose, giving us characters with impressive emotional and comic
range. The voice talent is excellent, particularly Leary and Leguizamo
plus good supporting players like Jack Black, Cedric the Entertainer, and Alan
Tudyk (Wat from A Knight's Tale).
The scrat (voiced by Chris Wedge, one of the movie's co-directors) is not
a main character, but he is a memorable one. He's the high point of the film,
laugh-wise. In between, there are plenty of good jokes, mental and physical
(like watching the Sabertooth play Peek-A-Boo). It does seem a little mean to
get laughs by presenting the dodo bird as a species so incredibly stupid that
it deserves to be extinct, since in actuality the dodo did manage to survive
for thousands of years
until we hunted them and introduced predators into
their habitat. But part of what keeps Ice Age a cut above, say, Disney's
pretty but uninspired Dinosaurs, is that it's not afraid to be a little
mean. 'Cause darn it, mean is funny.
One of the dangers of anthropomorphizing animals is that, in a universe in which
animals have consciousness, the carnivores pretty much have to be the villains.
The Muppets always made it into a joke, as on their Christmas album
All: "Now bring us some figgy pudding
Piggy: "Piggy pudding!?!"
Gonzo: "Not piggy pudding. Figgy pudding. It's made with figs."
Gonzo: "And bacon."
But most children's properties go the "Herbivores good, carnvivores bad"
route. Disney's The Lion King paid lip service to the whole Circle of
Life thing, but they actually skirted the issue by having Timon and Pumba teach
Simba to subsist on a diet of bugs (insects evidently don't warrant our pity).
Ice Age picks a path that's a little more complicated. Manny the Mammoth
says straight out that he doesn't have anything against carnivores, but that
he detests creatures who kill for pleasure. Therefore, under this philosophy,
it is permissible for humans to kill sabertooth tigers to wear their skins as
protection against the cold, but it is not permissible for the sabertooths to
want to chew up a cute little human baby as retaliation. Regardless of the reason,
the carnivores once again end up being the villains. Nonetheless, Ice Age
sets up an interesting dynamic in that Manny does go through all this trouble
trying to return a human child to its tribe, in spite of the fact that (SPOILERS
COMING UP HERE), as we later find out, Manny's mate and offspring were killed
by humans. Even Diego the Sabertooth ends up putting friendship above his instincts.
Which makes Manny, Sid, and Diego the Three Musketeers, but still leaves me
wondering how long the friendship will last when Diego realizes that he hasn't
had anything to eat for the last day or two.
Normally, this type of tale of interspecies understanding would annoy me more
than a bag-full of Land Before Time sequels. But at the sentimental moments,
the very parts where I should have been bah-humbugging, I actually got a little
misty eyed. I think that's because the characters are just gruff and selfish
enough to make their selfless acts seem like more than hollow kid-flick do-gooder-ism.
Plus, that Rusted Root song does the soul good.