I wasn’t actually aware that Universal Studios made animated films. I had to google what else they’ve done, and nothing on the list stood out to me except for their early efforts with Land Before Time and An American Tail. Those are quire reminiscent of my childhood, but Universal has spent the 25 years since essentially just making sequels and cartoons that never seem to gain any traction. Given the quality of The Nut Job, it’s difficult to imagine they’re animated features will ever achieve the same success as Disney or Dreamworks.
The story follows squirrel outcast Surly (Will Arnett; Arrested Development) on his selfish quest to accumulate as many nuts as possible, no matter how many other animals starve in the process. He’s out for number one, and it’s his interference with a park sanctioned nut cart heist that causes him to be banished from central park by the park’s leader Raccoon (Liam Neeson; Taken). Surly has to try to survive in the city, while his former companions are also forced to leave the park in search for food. When both interested parties find a massive nut warehouse, Surly is forced to team up with those who kicked him out of his home to knock over the warehouse.
Most of my time watching this film was spent trying to figure out exactly who the target audience was. It strikes me that it must be very very young children; children so young that they wouldn’t even really be able to follow the plot, but be captivated by the action and bright colors. Once kids get big enough to walk and talk and play outside and go to school, I think a lot of the more unbelievable elements of the film would cause them to lose interest. Young kids know that you can’t just pull a brick out of a wall. They know that if you do get a brick, it’s hard and dangerous and not fragile, so if you drop it on your foot it’s not going to disintegrate into dust.
“But, Joe!” I hear you exclaim. “Kids also know that animals can’t think and reason and talk!” Obviously, this is an animated children’s movie and anthropomorphized animals are a convention of the genre. I have no problem with that, and have loved most of Pixar’s efforts to tell stories in this fantastical way. My issue with The Nut Job is that the more convenient and implausible moments were dismissed by the filmmakers, presumably because they thought no one would notice or care.
The way characters are presented is really annoying as well. Anyone who’s ever seen a kids movie knows that Surly is going to learn his lesson and figure out how to be the hero we need him to be. This reversal in his character would be easier to believe if he were just selfish in the beginning, but he’s also downright malicious, making it more difficult to get on board with his character arc. The worst character for me though is Andie (Katherine Heigl; Grey’s Anatomy), who objects to Surly’s banishment because there is not trial, but still votes for him to be kicked out, knowing the vote would have to be unanimous. She’s weak, feeble minded, and generally unimportant, and I hate what a female character like this in any film promotes to its audience, especially children.
Finally, I remember the day (over a year ago now) when Korean pop sensation Psy’s “Ganghnam Style” became irrelevant. He sold out and did a cashew advertisement for last year’s super bowl, and you could just feel his relevance fade away in those 30 seconds. I assume The Nut Job was still in production when Psy was popular, so it’s understandable on some level why an animated Psy is dancing and singing during the end credits: Universal was trying to capitalize on the latest fad. However, it has absolutely nothing to do with the movie. So, I’m sure it’s fun for young kids to watch, but it will only get more annoying to future audiences who can’t believe we ever thought that song and that dance was worth our attention.
I don’t want to completely slam the entire film. Despite being convenient and predictable, there were some interesting aspects to this. I liked that in order for the animals to pull off their heist, they would have to unintentionally foil the bank heist of three gangsters. I liked that some of the set design seemed to come right out of older movies I imagine the animators enjoy. The climactic scenes of the movie take place in and around a tunnel that looks exactly like the one in Back to the Future 2, before moving on to a dam that could be right out of Goldeneye. I also tend to like plays or movies with characters who can’t or won’t speak, like Surly’s best friend Buddy. So, there is some care going into this, but it feels like key members of the production team were not as invested as the others.
Special features include deleted scenes and some animated shorts, as well as an end credits dance off. Available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Studios on April 8.