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Thursday, July 12, 2012 10:26 am

Drift bouyed by new characters

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Inexplicably, the cartoon crew from the Ice Age films has avoided extinction and proven as resilient as a cockroach, that is, as long as they continue to bring in big bucks for 20th Century-Fox. That seems assured as the fourth entry of the series, subtitled Continental Drift, floats into theaters with a pair of new directors and a bevy of fresh characters. Much like Madagascar 3, this film proves to be an improvement on previous installments. It strips away a great many distractions and returns the series to its roots by focusing on its three main protagonists while giving them a memorable villain to play off.

Wisely, directors Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier lead with their strong suit, namely the character of Scrat, the saber-toothed squirrel whose obsessive pursuit of his beloved acorns has had inexplicable repercussions on the evolution of the Earth itself. In the film’s most imaginative sequence, his quest for the elusive nut takes him to the Earth’s core and results in the cleaving of Pangea into the continents we know now. You have to see it to believe it. In the best Wiley Coyote tradition, the poor rodent takes more than his fair share of comedic abuse throughout the film, most memorably during its epilogue.

This separation of the land masses is a rather big deal and it has a cataclysmic effect on Manny (voice by Ray Romano), who’s separated from his woolly mammoth family and finds himself adrift on a rapidly melting piece of ice with his old friends Diego (Denis Leary), the tough saber-toothed tiger with a heart of gold, and Sid (John Leguizamo), the dim sloth who’s been saddled with his addle-brained grandmother (Wanda Sykes). Near death, the quartet encounters a band of animal pirates led by Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), a giant monkey with a wicked grin and withered conscience. His crew of misfits isn’t much better, though the sleek saber-tooth Shira (Jennifer Lopez) might not be as hardened as she appears.

In putting the series’ primary three characters together in close quarters, screenwriters Michael Berg and Jason Fuchs successfully rekindle the comic dynamic that provided the first film with its best moments. Sid continues to deliver more than a few laughs, what with Leguizamo’s enthusiastically daffy line readings, while the exasperation Romano provides for Manny and Leary’s spot-on timing to render Diego’s slow burns make for a trio of characters who still have some life left in them. Wisely, Manny’s wife and daughter (Queen Latifah and Keke Palmer, respectively) are given very little screen time. They lead a group of displaced animals to a far-off land bridge where they hope to be reunited with the adrift quartet. Though this subplot is needed to get the film up to feature length, it drags whenever we return to this trek. The characters are bland and the lesson it contains is forced.

Thankfully, the inclusion of Gutt and his crew add a much-needed spark to the story. Their entry on an iceberg ship, replete with sharp, teeth-like shards and a fog bank it seems to carry with it is memorable. So is the show-stopping tune, “Master of the Seas,” which Dinklage crisply and happily delivers despite its tongue-twisting lyrics.

One of the things that’s always bothered me is the jumbled, overcrowded and sloppy aesthetic applied to the animation used in the series and this entry does nothing to rectify this. Presenting it in 3-D only accentuates how behind-the-times these movies are compared to other studios’ efforts in what’s considered a golden age for the genre. Fortunately, there is enough effective banter and memorable characters present to make this, if not the best episode, at least a welcome turnaround for a series that will seemingly cover multiple epochs, historical accuracy be damned.  

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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