Ice Age is another telling of a story that we have seen animated repeatedly. A group of misfits are thrown together for a road trip and/or a mission. Along the way, they find out about themselves as individuals and as a group, and learn one or more “big lessons.”
The main characters of Ice Age are Manfred “Manny” the Mammoth (Ray Romano, whose deep, whining drone is a perfect voice for the pessimistic, depressed mammoth) and Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo). They’re obviously recycling Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, or Shrek‘s Donkey and Shrek (Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers), or Mike and Sully (Billy Crystal and John Goodman) in Monsters Inc., and so on, only their skins and shapes are different. Yet, for all its familiarity, this story is well told in Ice Age its well told and beautifully composed. In many ways, the story is immaterial, as it is the production and artwork of these films that keeps audiences coming. Grown-ups will want to feast their eyes on the groovy cyber-art of Ice Age.
The major change Ice Age makes in the formula is setting, as the story takes place during the evolutionary turmoil of the Ice Age. The first scene is a long march for, literally, tons of animals, migrating south to wait out the winter. They seem pretty jovial, despite the trek ahead of them. They’re kind of like school kids chatting it up while leaving the building during a fire drill: they exhibit a bit of nervousness under the giggling—is it for real this time? We know, of course, that not all the animals will make it through the winter, but we just don’t want to face that fact, and neither do they, which perhaps accounts for their playful hijinks.
During this interspecies migration, we are introduced to Manny, who is walking against the crowd—and toward a certain death from the cold. He appears contrary to the rest of the animals in every way: not only is he walking in the opposite direction as everyone else, he also lacks their energetic cheer. From the beginning, we get the idea that Manny is a misanthrope with a lot of baggage about which he only hints; more is revealed later and it’s really quite sad. Let’s just say that Manny has abandonment issues that he’ll have to deal with on the journey. Heck, someone has to.
Against his wishes, Manny is befriended—or rather, beset—by Sid, who has a personality so goofy that even his own sloth family has abandoned him on the great migration. While Manny is trying to shake Sid, who tries to hook up with him for protection and companionship, the two stumble across an abandoned/lost infant human (a la Monsters, Inc.). This particular child, though, is being pursued by several sabertooth tigers seeking revenge upon the child for the destruction of their pack by human hunters. Diego (Denis Leary), second in command to Soto (Goran Visnjic), is ordered to capture the infant, for torture and dinner. Unsurprisingly, Diego has a change of heart, one thing leads to another, and Manny, Sid, and Diego end up banding together in an attempt to get the child back to his tribe before snow closes off the passage.
Sounds like your standard road movie about a bunch of guys who get on each other’s nerves, right? While Ice Age might fall in parts within these limitations, it also exceeds them in several respects. Think about it: a mammoth, a sabertooth tiger, and a sloth are natural enemies, occupying very different positions in the food chain. Lowest of all on the chain, though, is the baby human; the problem is that baby humans grow up to be hunters of all the other animals. Though Manny, Diego, and Sid speculate that maybe, when the baby grows up, he will remember his caretakers and not hunt them, they also seem to know this is not the case: humans are a herd like any other, trying to survive in brutal conditions, and species survival drives will always win.
Even so, there is a distinct difference between the sabertooths and the human hunters. Humans are represented as looking to live out the winter, while the tigers are seeking revenge against the humans. While this all takes place back in the kill-or-be-killed climate of the Ice Age, and the world looks a very different place now, morality tales have changed little—it’s just that humans appear more vindictive and the tigers more victimized these days. We’re really not talking about man vs. nature; these characters are all humanized, and Ice Age is really about diversity and community. And, of course, it’s also about hierarchies, with (white) human folks always ending up on top, and the humanized “animals” cast as the relative savages.
Even considering this skewed version of multiculturalism and tolerance, I’m willing to cut the film some slack, if only on the basis of its technical merits. Like its recent predecessors, Ice Age‘s animation is a marvel; my skin crawled while watching the sabertooths slink and glide. Along the journey, the motley crew meets up with all kinds of other creatures who take part in brief, humorous skits, included to allow animators to indulge themselves. Two urbane, salad-connoisseur rhinos (Cedric the Entertainer and Stephen Root) discuss the delights of nibbling dandelions. A flock of dodos, alternately resembling a militaristic cult and a football team, bumble their way toward extinction. The big-eyed little rodent featured so prominently in the film’s trailers, known as “Scrat” (Chris Wedge), is noticed only peripherally by the characters on screen, but his antics will amuse audiences from the very beginning to the very, very end of the film (stay through the credits).
Scrat’s journey, which parallels that of Manny, Sid, and Diego, also provides an alternative to the sabertooth/human evolutionary tale of interspecies conflict. In Scrat’s case, individual persistence allows survival, rather than, say, group aggression. Scrat’s insistence that he alone can save himself, and that as long as he holds on to a single acorn, he won’t starve, is silly to the point of appearing futile: the acorn actually puts him in more danger than he would otherwise encounter. Yet Scrat also facilitates the “moral” of the story through all his foibles and fumbles. As the larger mammal characters crow repeatedly through action and word, things work out better for the group and are easier if we all work together.
In addition to moralizing about family and community—or “herd”, as the animals refer to themselves—Ice Age also asserts that the most valuable sacrifice is to die for the herd, the truest indication of our belonging/identity. It is apparent that each herd has a set of rules to be followed, and that not everyone is equally involved in crafting these regulations. In order to belong, we have to give up the possibility of ever changing herds, and blindly follow the rules over which we have no control.
After all of the work Ice Age puts in to promote non-traditional herds or families, its final “lesson” is that the purity and superiority of the human race (read: white) and family must be maintained, again, echoing Shrek and Monsters, Inc. Ice Age, like those films, is not quite as liberal as it might appear on the surface.