Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs begins as Manny (Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah) await the birth of their baby. They and the rest of their motley herd have been settled down for month. When Diego (Denis Leary), feeling restless, decides to return to hunting, he rebuffs Sid’s (John Leguizamo) attempt to tag along. This leaves Sid feeling lonely, and so, when he falls into a crevasse and discovers three abandoned eggs, he imagines he’ll start his own family, drawing faces on the shells. Unfortunately, the eggs belong to someone else: a mother T-Rex.
When she shows up to retrieve the newly hatched babies, she brings Sid along home with her. “Home” for her, it turns out, is a subterranean rainforest, a dinosaur refuge as seen in Land of the Lost. This even though, according to Manny, dinosaurs are “supposed to be extinct,” a point that makes the film’s title nonsensical, even for a cartoon about talking prehistoric animals.
Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs alters the pattern established by the previous two films. Instead of their focus on self-discovery and relationships within the herd, the new film is bent on action-packed, 3-D adventure. Toward this end, it introduces the enthusiastic T-Rex-hunting weasel, Buck (Simon Pegg), as able as the oversized Manny and brawny Diego to fight enormous meat-eating plants, noxious fumes, and erupting lava are all risk factors. Buck is an expert on navigating these dangers and so leads the others in their search for the kidnapped Sid.
Buck mainly serves his own agenda, which is to pursue Rudy, the T-Rex who is the undisputed king of this particular jungle. In this, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs recalls, to its disadvantage, Moby Dick, with the singularly focused one-eyed Buck our obsessed (but infinitely more verbose) Captain Ahab. Manny and the others are dragged along like so many Ishmaels, not quite realizing what they signed up for until it’s too late. Manny, never one to take on risk, sees Buck is a little off and tries to lead the others on his own (“Well, good luck with your slow descent into madness!” he offers when he leaves). But Buck is the star of this show, and the group quickly learns they can’t continue without him.
Fans of the previous Ice Age movies will either be disappointed that Manny, Ellie, and other favorites are pushed aside here in favor of Buck or thrilled with the additional screen-time granted to the perennially frustrated sabre-tooth squirrel, Scrat (Chris Wedge). Still chasing after that same elusive nut, Scrat is here distracted by a potential love interest, the eyelash-batting, tail-swishing Scratte (Karen Disher). Still, Scrat’s near-victories and inevitable defeats work better in small doses. In a feature film, they only further fragment an already weak storyline.
But no matter how far Manny’s unconventional herd travels, it never seems to cover new ground. Parents and children might discuss some of the third film’s themes—a child feeling displaced by a new baby, or recognizing the inevitability of breaking away from the nuclear unit—but the creatures here relearn the same darn lesson they’ve been learning since the original Ice Age. They must look past stereotypes, accept each other’s differences, and understand themselves as part of a family.