Netflix Recommendation: Ice Age/Ice Age: The Meltdown (Wedge/Saldanha, 2002/2006)
It’s clear that Ice Age and its sequel, Ice Age: The Meltdown, are not on the level of the Pixar films. The storytelling is a stone’s throw from original, the characters don’t rise too far past sitcom-level development, and the animation doesn’t have an ounce of the detail that even the most pedestrian Pixar film has– it’s even beneath most Dreamworks Animation releases. Why then do these films elicit a smile? The cartoony character design allows for the type of broad witty visual gags usually reserved for Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and characters of that ilk, and allows for the animation to impress us without the detail. The writers keep the dialogue minimal and let the visuals do most of the talking. Finally, there’s Scrat, one of the best animated characters created in the last decade or so, a direct descendant of the Chuck Jones School of Looney Tunes. Even when the story might be dragging, or the characters might be failing to thrill, there’s constantly the promise of another Scrat scene lurking on the other side of the iceberg.
In the first Ice Age, Sid (John Leguizamo), an abandoned sloth, is rescued by a reluctant mammoth named Manny (Ray Romano). Together, they encounter a prehistoric woman dying in a river, who hands Sid and Manny her baby. Sid and Manny set off to find the humans, with the help of Diego (Denis Leary), a sabretooth tiger who secretly wants to kidnap the baby to take back to the leader of his sabretooth pack as food. In Ice Age: The Meltdown, our heroes discover their valley home is at great risk, since the ice age is ending and their valley will be flooded. On their way out, Diego battles his fear of water, Sid meets a tribe of mini-sloths who worship him, and Manny meets Ellie (Queen Latifah), the only other mammoth he has encountered since being separated from his tribe– only she thinks she’s a possum, who accompanies them with her “brothers,” Crash and Eddie (Seann William Scott and Josh Peck) as the walls of ice keeping the flood from arriving wear thinner and thinner. Through all of this, there’s also Scrat, trying to capture that evasive acorn.
The first Ice Age is a pleasing diversion, full of simple characters but plenty of heart. The baby subplot wears thin– it devolves into Three Prehistoric Creatures And A Baby at times– but its presence gives Diego serious inner conflict and the film some palpable tension. Sid and Manny have some amusing banter, and Scrat absolutely steals every scene he is in. It never elevates to something special, although it does get quite close in an animated cavedrawing sequence where we discover why Manny is such a cynic and in a sequence where the dodos go extinct (a slow-motion Sid plowing through dodos provides the biggest laugh of the film). The sequel, despite being inferior in terms of story and heart, is superior in terms of action sequences and laughs. Diego is basically wasted– the fear of water doesn’t make up for his complete lack of character– and the Manny/Ellie romance is flimsy at best, although there is a great moment where Manny attempts to use the pick-up line, “For the future of our species, it’s our responsibility.” However, the Scrat bits are even funnier than before, Sid isn’t reduced to babysitting duties, and all of the interesting prehistoric creatures on the side are given good cameo moments. Among the highlights: Sid’s worshippers and a “Food Glorious Food” musical number where vultures hope the flood creates opportunity for a prime feast.
Can Ice Age 3 eclipse both its predecessors? Possibly– Scrat in 3D seems to provide limitless comic possibilities, and the broad cartoony character design lends itself to really popping off the screen without losing much of the detail. Still, the progression of the first two in terms of action and comedy leaves one hopeful that they can finally break that barrier and challenge Pixar, while not in originality or animation, in terms of fun.