Ice Age (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Hats off to 20th Century Fox. Through a marketing campaign which can be considered nothing less than astonishing, the studio has managed to convert Ice Age from an adequate (but hardly superlative) example of family entertainment into one of 2002's handful of must-see movies. Put this one alongside Star Wars, Episode II, the 20th James Bond film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and The Two Towers on the list of movies that seemingly everyone is aware of. The reason is simple: a computer-generated squirrel who has a hard time hiding his acorn.

Wisely, the previews for Ice Age only give glimpses of the pedestrian main plot. Instead, they center on the devilishly clever, exceedingly enjoyable interludes featuring the aforementioned rodent in situations and circumstances that recall the great animated work of the recently departed Chuck Jones. In fact, it got to the point where I was becoming irritated by the movie's main plot - I wanted to see the squirrel again. All told, he makes about five appearances (totaling maybe 10 minutes of screen time). The rest of the movie is concerned with the escapades of a woolly mammoth, a sloth, a sabertooth tiger, and a human baby who tries unsuccessfully to be as cute as Monsters Inc.'s Boo.

Discounting Final Fantasy, which was aimed at a much different audience, Ice Age is the eighth Hollywood-financed computer animated film. It follows in the wake of, and borrows liberally from both of 2001's blockbusters, Shrek and Monsters Inc. In fact, if Ice Age hadn't been in development before those movies arrived in multiplexes, one might be tempted to argue that the screenplay for this film took elements from its two immediate predecessors, jumbled them together, then dumped them out in the middle of a frozen tundra. Kids, of course, will love Ice Age. Adults will be entertained, but no more. The film doesn't quite succeed as well on both levels as last year's Dreamworks and Disney/Pixar productions do.

The time period is the Dawn of Man. The dinosaurs have long since vanished from the Earth, and an ice age is fast approaching. The animals, at least most of them, are headed south for the long, hard winter. Among the exceptions are the industrious, frustrated squirrel, and three larger mammals: Manfred the Mammoth (voice of Ray Romano), Sid the Sloth (voice of John Leguizamo), and Diego the Sabertooth (voice of Denis Leary). These three have banded together on an unlikely quest: return a lost human baby to his tribe. However, while Manfred and Sid have the best intentions, Diego is pursuing his own agenda, which includes turning Manfred into dinner.

The contentious relationship turned to warm friendship between Manfred and Sid is virtually identical to that of Shrek and Donkey. The bonding that goes on between the animals and the baby recalls the way Boo worms her way into the big, bad monsters' affections. But, despite the many plot similarities, the humor and sophistication of Ice Age never quite reaches the level of the other computer animated endeavors - except on those occasions when the squirrel is on screen. Also, the quality of the animation is a notch lower. It's not bad, by any means, but it's a definite step backwards, often more resembling the look of a computer game than that of a big budget motion picture.

Vocal casting is a critical element of any animated movie, and Ice Age gets it two-thirds right. The mistake is Ray Romano, whose trademark low-key delivery turns Manfred into a walking invitation to doze off. He's boring; the word "animated" hardly seems to apply. Fortunately, Manfred's dullness is more than adequately counterbalanced by John Leguizamo's off-the-wall portrayal of Sid. One could make a case that Leguizamo is more effective here, where we don't see his face, than he has been in any of the outings where we have seen it. Denis Leary offers an interesting portrayal of Diego - there's not a hint of sarcasm or irony in the performance. Leary, in an unusual move, plays it straight.

Ice Age's director is Chris Wedge, whose only previous experience behind the camera was making an animated short called "Bunny". His first foray into feature filmmaking is successful, although Ice Age is not a standout in the still-small subgenre of computer animated films. It's perfectly acceptable family entertainment - the kind of movie that parents can take their children to without worrying about inappropriate content (for either the youngsters or the adults). And, sometimes, that's about all you can ask for from a movie.

Ice Age (United States, 2002)

Director: Chris Wedge
Cast: (voices) Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary
Screenplay: Peter Ackerman, Michael Berg, Michael Wilson
Music: David Newman
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:22
U.S. Release Date: 2002-03-15
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1