Problem child

Prehistoric baby-sitting causes a few evolutionary detours.


directed by Chris Wedge with Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, and Denis Leary opens March 15 at Majestic Bay, Meridian, Oak Tree, and others

THE NEW OSCAR category for animated features is working as intended, rewarding big media players like DreamWorks (Shrek) and Disney (Monsters, Inc.) who can then slap "Oscar-winning" and "Oscar-nominated" on the DVDs of their uninspired products. Anything genuinely innovative, imaginative, or not aimed at kids—such as Richard Linklater's low-budget, groundbreaking Waking Life— gets ignored.

Where does that leave Ice Age? Likely in strong contention for the '03 Oscars. Like Monsters, it's basically another retread of Three Men and a Baby, as a helpless human infant falls into the care of a gruff mastodon (voiced by Ray Romano), doofus sloth (John Leguizamo), and conniving saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary). Square, predictable, and pedantic, Age lacks the 鬡n of the Toy Story series or the winking self-consciousness of The Emperor's New Groove, to name a few recent titles that actually work for adults. It's a family values flick through and through, with lessons to impart ("That's what you do in a herd—you look out for each other"), which will likely please its intended parent-child PG audience.

One indication of how Age disappointingly places edification above entertainment is in its diminutive Scrat character, who's limited to comic relief. (Scrat—there's your movie!) A tiny, fanged, squirrel-like relative of Warner Bros.' single-minded Wile E. Coyote, Scrat's only mission in life is to hide his beloved acorn for the long, long winter ahead. Jamming the nut in the ice creates a cataclysmic radiating network of cracks that sends the rodent on a frantic escape through crevasses, avalanches, and falling ice. (Several other laughs come from the supporting soon-to-be-extinct species our band encounters, including an amusing flock of very stupid, very agitated dodos and a pair of possibly gay rhinos.)

The shame of it is how the occasionally delightful gags and inspired images are merely a sideshow to our heroes' ploddingly altruistic quest to return the kid to its clan. Given how Ice Age intentionally references old Warner-style animation—flat backgrounds, empty landscapes, sudden cliffs, etc.—you wish that Wedge had indulged in more of the old anarchic, pratfall-driven spirit of Coyote vs. Road Runner. Surely there are valuable lessons for your offspring besides herd/family values. In other words: Movies can teach, but recess is important, too.

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