13 July 2012

THE ICE PIRATES

I know this is the most obvious possible way to start off, but: Ice Age: Continental Drift is no less than the third sequel to 2002's blandly pleasant Ice Age, and I cannot figure out why. Okay, so why is thunderingly obvious: because the movies are ridiculously profitable (the third entry in the franchise, Dawn of the Dinosaurs, has as of this writing the highest non-U.S. box office take of any animated film ever made, at $690 million and change - a record its sequel is likely going to beat), and it is in a sense the obligation of movie studio executives to keep making sequels to ridiculously profitable movies until they stop making money. The real mystery is why, exactly, the Ice Age films are so massively successful: even though we all hopefully figured out a long time ago that lots of truly shitty movies do huge business, there's still at least a vague semblance of a meritocracy, and the really big hits have some kind of X-factor that you can still identify, even if you don't personally like it. Take the Shrek films, the only other animated franchise ever to hit four entries: I have no use for any of them, but I understand the draw of their populist post-modern travesty of fairy tale motifs and broad scatological humor. But Ice Age, damn. They're so exaggeratedly flimsy and blank: vacuous fetch quests starring three Pleistocene animals voiced by actors who barely tried to hide their disinterest in the material the first time around and have not bothered about it since then, predicated on musty, ancient dramatic scenarios pitched squarely at the 8-and-under set, yet papered floor-to-ceiling with surprisingly bawdy double entendres that the 8-year-olds' parents are undoubtedly too bored to find funny. What about this seemingly can't-hit situation makes it the basis for one of the most durable movie franchises of the 21st Century, I do not even want to speculate; it is far, far too depressing.

No mystery about the why of, "why did the storytellers think this was compelling enough to be worthy of their time?" because they plainly didn't. Last time it was a lost world with dinosaurs (a concept so hoary and ill-executed that even one of the characters in Continental Drift makes fun of it); this time it's pirates. In a movie set some 20,000 years ago. Populated by talking animals. The mind would reel, if reeling didn't take too much energy that Continental Drift has stolen away. It is gratifying, anyway, that Ice Age has officially reached the "Mad Libs" phase of its development, for these corporate product kiddie films are invariably more fascinating - though by no means "better" - as they grow increasingly brazen in just juggling crazy nonsense to see what happens.

There is, admittedly, one lingering reason to enjoy the Ice Age franchise: the Scrat. The little saber-toothed squirrel rat locked in an eternal struggle to capture an unattainable acorn (a safely neutered version of the Wile E. Coyote-Road Runner or Sylvester-Tweety dynamic for a franchise that's had a hell of a time reconciling the fact that one-third of its central cast is a natural predator of another third), who manic adventures in Tex Avery territory are the five or six minutes in every one of these features that genuinely and ecstatically works; the Scrat material in Continental Drift is perhaps the weakest in the franchise, and it helps not at all that the majority of it was excerpted in two short films that have come out in the last year and a half. But the last big Scrat scene is a charmingly warped little bit of what-the-fuckery, anchored by a fantastic surprise vocal cameo. I will not spoil it; but it is not worth the price of a ticket. It is, however, worth renting the film when you can fast forward through all the dreadful plot bits. My last hope at this point is that if they're going to keep making Ice Age - and now that they've managed to spin a half a movie's worth of plot into four features, I cannot imagine why they'd stop any time soon - eventually, around Ice Age 15 or so, all of those five-minute Scrat chunks will be enough to edit into a complete Scrat feature.

That glorious day being decades into the future, what shall we make of Continental Drift? That it exists; that it isn't nearly as fun in its genre-mashing adventure as the marginally rousing Dawn of the Dinosaurs, but that it's also less grating than the truly hideous first sequel, The Meltdown, and that Blue Sky Studios isn't as good as DreamWorks Animation is at pointless, distracting celebrity voice casting: joining Ray Romano the Mammoth, Dennis Leary as the Indignified Saber-Tooth Tiger (that Leary is voicing, in a crushingly mediocre family flick, a predator stripped of his ability to be savage, simply must be a conscious meta-joke by now), John Leguizamo as the Idiot Lisping Sloth, Queen Latifah the Lady Mammoth, and Seann William Scott as the Loathesomely Dumb Opossum, we now get to add Keke Palmer as the Rebellious Mammoth Teen Daughter, Wanda Sykes as the Senile Grandmother Sloth (after the previously mentioned cameo, hers is the only performance worth a damn), Peter Dinklage as the Simian Pirate Captain who is performed in far too genuinely brutal a register for such a flaccid kids' movie, and Nicki Minaj as the Character Who Serves No Narrative Purpose Other Than To Facilitate Casting Nicki Minaj, Who, We Find, Is an Epically Poor Actress, So Thank God She's Barely Present.

There is a plot in all that: in the opening, Scrat causes the continent of Pangaea to split into the continents we now know (scientific accuracy not being a terribly signifiant concern in this franchise, I'm still a little impressed by how aggressively Continental Drift manages to violate even the most rudimentary, grammar school-level understanding of plate tectonics), and the ensuing cataclysms, cause Romano-Mammoth to be separated from his family just after a terrible fight between he and Palmer-Mammoth. He and Leary-Tiger and Leguizamo-Sloth encounter pirates on a iceberg shaped exactly like an 18th Century tall ship (one of no fewer than three such objects introduced into the film by Dame Contrivance, on the logic of in for a penny of unlikely anachronistic pirate ships, in for a pound, I guess). These pirates chase the three heroes all the way to someplace that isn't home and then back home, where they are defeated by the power of Mammoth Nuclear Family Love. Also, there are some really obvious, really cheesy 3-D effects, and this is something I support: immersive landscapes are fine and all, but sometimes you just want to see something immensely stupid and proud of it, and that is where I largely reside in respect to 3-D.

If you are of an age to care enough about movies that you read movie reviews, you are not the film's target audience. You are perhaps the parent of a such a person, or morbidly curious, or you found the earlier films blandly unobjectionable and you were looking forward to more of the same. If it is the last of these, I have good news for you. For everyone else, it is what it is, a pointlessly random collection of talking animals who do things that are not funny and have character revelations that do not rise above the level of a sitcom episode stretched out (though only a little; Continental Drift, at 87 minutes, at least has the merit of being sleek and fast-moving), and at this point, thinking of each new Ice Age picture as a sitcom episode is just about right. Will the kids love it? I honestly don't care, though I pity them if they do. Once upon a time, we had children's movies that could be revisited years later with affection and no real sense of shame, and that is the kind of thing that I'd prefer my guileless family entertainment to be. The 8-year-olds of today will not be sharing Continental Drift with their 8-year-old children of tomorrow; and if they do, then our culture is worse off than I'd be inclined to guess in even my most pessimistic moments.

5/10

5 comments:

Trish said...

I'll vouch for the first "Ice Age" movie as it pleasantly surprised me. There are some genuinely touching scenes and the sense of humor felt as close as we will ever get to a full-length film adaptation of "The Far Side".

The sequels, sadly, very quickly tossed both those elements I enjoyed out. On top of this, as soon as you include scenes like the one where the parent mammoths build a *playground* for their daughter, or the one where Sid takes a bunch of younger animals *camping* in the woods, you need to ask yourself, "Why are they even animals anymore? Why is this even set in the Pleistocene?" (Never mind the dinosaurs in the third film, to which one can only emit the deepest and most heartbreaking sigh.)

KayMartha12 said...

Hi Tim,

This review was a great start to my weekend. I certainly fall into that "curios" demographic about the latest animated offerings.

On that note, would you compare today's theatrical sequel trend of animated films to the direct to video sequel trend of the '90s? Think the "Aladdin" and "Lion King" "trilogies," and don't get me started on "The Land Before Time." I'm thinking the logic used for producing DTV sequels is the same: kids recognize the characters, kids will more readily consume a familiar product, and the company would be foolish not to cash in on the movie franchise if it makes money.

In the 2000s, Pixar set a new standard by topping Toy Story with 2 excellent theatrical sequels, and Dreamworks concurrently followed. Like you, I am not a fan of Shrek or Madagascar, but the sequel were credible efforts, and I liked Kung Fu Panda 2. Point being, I would think that theatrical sequels, unlike DTV sequels, require more effort, and that could be a good thing for the brains of children. But after reading this review of the fourth Ice Age, I realize I'm too optimistic.

Movies Now and Then said...

Anything to say about the Maggie Simpson short playing before the movie?

Tim said...

Zev- I absolutely have to see Wreck-It Ralph for that exact reason, and boy am I not looking forward to it.

But do not fear for animation; Miyazaki and Takahata yet live, and Pixar only has one more franchise movie in the pipeline.

Trish- Revising the plot of Ice Age 1, I'm shocked by how much it doesn't seem to take place in the same world as the sequels. I haven't seen it in ten years now, I remembering thinking it was a cute little timewaster, but compared to the horrible places the franchise went, it seems like the highest of concepts now.

KayMartha- That's an interesting idea, and I think it's worth developing. What fascinates me is that, on a plot level, the Ice Age are the most DTV of all of the movies; and yet they do such huge overseas business, despite being less everything than other sequels. I just don't know.

Movies N&T- Completely wordless, in a way that doesn't feel like a natural extension of the series or the character. It's basically a Tom & Jerry short with Maggie Simpson dropped in just because. And 3-D does it absolutely no favors.

Daniel Silberberg said...

"one of no fewer than three such objects introduced into the film by Dame Contrivance, on the logic of in for a penny of unlikely anachronistic pirate ships, in for a pound, I guess"

It's lines like this that keep me coming back. At least something fun has come out of an Ice Age sequel.