Ice Age

| March 17, 2002

The first few minutes of Ice Age are brilliantly conceived, involving only a prehistoric squirrel, an acorn and a whole lot of snow. The setting is tens of thousands of years ago and Scrat, a rabid-looking saber-toothed squirrel, is trying to hide a nut in the frozen snow. His desperate little digging triggers the shifting of enormous glaciers from which he (and his nut) must escape. The sequence is without dialogue or music–all you hear are Scrat’s anxious squeals and the creaking and groaning of the moving ice. The remarkable computer animation verges on the abstract, and the situation grows so ridiculous (without a hint of self-consciousness) that you can’t help but cheer at the filmmakers’ little-boy gee-whiz audacity. You’d have to go back to 1993 to Nick Park’s The Wrong Trousers to find another animated moment half as fun.
The opening, so confident in character and environment, color and line, had me hoping that Ice Age would be the movie the overly-praised Shrek wanted to be. And things continue along promisingly. Scrat survives the glaciers only to find himself in the middle of a Pleistocene animal migration: the ancestors of today’s armadillos, sloths and elephants are heading wherever it is Pleistocene animals went to for a change of scenery. Since this is a cartoon, the animals are as smart as they are smartly animated. (A hippo-pig creature tells his children who are squirming in a tar pit to “play extinction later.”) I couldn’t wait to find out which characters Scrat would befriend.
The answer, disappointingly, is none. Scrat becomes a peripheral character, occasionally showing up to remind us of the movie that could have been. Instead, we get Sid (John Leguizamo), a whiny sloth who has been abandoned by his family, and Manfred (Ray Romano), a mopey mammoth who has been separated from his herd for reasons that I won’t spoil.
The two animals don’t like each other (of course) but are forced on a dangerous journey when they discover a human baby, and for reasons inconsistent with their characters, decide to return the kid to his “herd.”
Little do they know that a pack of saber-tooth tigers has killed the baby’s mother and now wants the child in revenge for all the tigers the humans have hunted and killed. And here is the movie’s most intriguing concept: the true villains are the humans. (The movie suggests the animals’ extinction is linked at least as much to human hunting as to climatic fluctuations.)
One of the tigers, Diego (an insufficiently menacing Denis Leary), volunteers to guide Sid and Manfred to the humans, all the while scheming how to bring the baby to his pack. The naïve vegetarians team up with the scheming carnivore and adventures ensue. Will the tiger eat the baby, sloth and mammoth in a frenzied, blood-drenched finale? Or will the animals see past their differences, forge unlikely friendships, and convince the humans how misguided they are in their spear-throwing ways?
I’m not telling, but I will say that along the way, we get to meet a pair of gay rhinos, find out why the dodos became extinct, and explore an ice cave fun house that creatively blends roller coaster thrills, evolution jokes, and some poignant backstory told through cave drawings.
The computer animation throughout is extraordinary: steam rising off water, the wind blowing an animal’s hair, reflections in a sheet of ice… all of it is incredibly detailed. The way the light hits the snow is particularly breathtaking. Only the humans fail to convince. (They look disturbingly like the Stretch Armstrong doll I used to have as a kid–the doll I should have kept, by the way… do you know those are going for $500 on eBay?)
Directors Carlos Saldanha and Chris Wedge have assembled a great team of technicians and artists. They deserve a lot of credit for keeping the movie at a tight 75 minutes, and for not resorting to those God-awful montages set to treacly pop songs that fill most cartoons. At its best, Ice Age rushes along like the best of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery.
So what’s wrong with Ice Age? Its release date. Though it was probably made at the same time as Shrek and Monsters, Inc., Ice Age’s story is by now overly familiar. The relationship between mismatched Sid and Manfred is identical to that between mismatched Shrek and Donkey in Shrek. And the story arc between Manfred and the human infant too closely parallels that between Sullivan and Boo in Monsters, Inc.
Is it fair to fault a movie for not opening first? Maybe not. But then again, if the script were as strong as the animation, it wouldn’t matter. Ice Age could have been a little scarier, a little funnier, a little riskier. It could have been more like the promise contained within its tease of an opening. Before the movie ends, we return to poor Scrat and his never-ending mission to bury that acorn. The ending is as visually witty and exciting as the beginning, and if the rest of the film were as inspired, this would be a classic along the lines of the Toy Story movies.
As it is, Ice Age is sweet, expertly crafted, and far better than the assembly-line toons Disney’s been putting out these past few years. Kids will love it, to be sure. And unless you’re the most cynical of adults, you should be brought back an early-morning Saturday of your childhood when there was nothing better than sitting too close to the television, wearing your pajamas, eating soggy sugar-spiked cereal, and laughing at cartoons.

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