[1 November 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
While it’s rare, it is indeed possible for a single element to save an otherwise standard piece of cookie cutter cartoon entertainment. For the last few decades, Hollywood has been cranking out the CG family films, animated efforts relying on quirky pop culture riffs and stunt voice casting to provide minimal amounts of superficial entertainment. While character and narrative depth are often secondary considerations, the funny business formula forged after years of Shrek-ccess must be met. Luckily for the latest installment of the Ice Age franchise (Dawn of the Dinosaurs, new to DVD and Blu-ray) that Simon Pegg came along. While the rest of the movie meanders along like a miserable Mastodon, this engaging tre-quel uses the Shaun of the Dead star to singlehandedly revive the series’ sagging fortunes.
The story picks up after the big Meltdown of the previous picture. Mammoth Manny (Ray Romano) and his equally hulky honey bunny Ellie (Queen Latifah) are expecting a child, and with the responsibility of fatherhood comes the inevitable cracks in close friendships. Sabertoothed Diego (Denis Leary) feels the need to leave the pack, while simpleton Sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) wants kids of his own. When the dim-bulb beast falls into a sinkhole and discovers a group of eggs, he immediately adopts them as his own. When they hatch, Sid is suddenly the father of…three baby Tyrannosaurus Rexes. When Manny and Ellie find out, they insist he return the foundlings to their rightful species. But this causes a major problem when the group gets lost in an underground domain of dinosaurs. Thankfully, heroic weasel Buck (Pegg) is around to protect the neophytes from danger while showing them the survival ropes.
It’s a little off-putting at first. Fans of the Ice Age films really don’t come to this material expecting danger and derring-do, but the moment our one-eyed adventurer shows up, all the cloying skrat love and kiddie oriented concerns fall by the wayside. While parents might balk at the notion of having to put their wee ones through a mega monster mash, Dawn of the Dinosaurs is clearly out to be a meatier, more menacing version of the series. Like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen without Michael Bay’s desire to play sledgehammer visionary, this installment takes everything that made the first two films tolerable, tweaks it with the addition of some genuine action energy, and the pours on the 3D gimmick du jour to make sure we get the appropriate cerebral overload (sadly, home video can’t recreate the real dimensional feel of the theatrical film).
For their part, the regulars show up and earn their paycheck. Romano does urbanized Droopy better than most similarly styled comedians, while her Majesty has little to add. Leary is really the odd man out here, shuttled to the side so that Leguizamo’s Sid can play proportionally dumber than ever before. Primary director Carlos Saldanha (also on hand for the first two films) does make great use of the supporting characters, including Seann William Scott and Josh Peck as charming frat dude possums Crash and Eddie. But it truly is Pegg that saves the day. While the four credited screenwriters are busy trying to find a continuous string of jokes, the English icon’s dry, devil-may-care wit takes everything Buck does and turns it into a post-modern manipulation of old school Hollywood heroism. He’s like a combination of Errol Flynn and Eric Idle.
If there is a flaw in the execution, however, it’s in turning the dinosaurs into one dimensional villains. Instead of infusing them with the same complicated characteristics of the stars, it’s all teeth, terror, and really bad attitudes. Mama Rex gets a moment or two of maternal attention, but that’s it. Like the water - both frozen and flowing - in the first two films, this inarticulate element really adds very little to the narrative…and that’s a shame. Kids really love those prehistoric creatures, and by giving them some basic personality traits, the series would have a whole other tempting talent pool to draw from. As it stands, Ice Age 3 feels like a film that said everything it had to say this time around. Where the series goes from here is anyone’s guess (and, one assumes, on the mind of everyone currently working at Fox).
At the very least, the recently released Blu-ray version of the film looks fantastic. The high definition medium really enhances the detail and depth put into CG film like these. Granted, there’s no 3D option, and the 1080p image can only go so far in recreating the theatrical experience, but the end results are stunning - specially when our heroes enter the lush, verdant dinosaur world. As for bonus features, Fox really lays out the content. We get a great commentary, a series of behind the scenes featurettes, a look at some deleted scenes, and a piece with Pegg about creating his character. There are also several episodes of Fox Movie Channel Presents, all focusing on different actors from the film, as well as a clever compendium of Skrat Shorts (known as the “Skrat Pack”). Each one illustrates how the mute little mouse-thing singlehandedly strives to revive the art of slapstick. While a few wear out their welcome before long, the entire package (including a regular DVD and digital copy) supplements the main feature effortlessly.
So it’s clear that there is more to Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs than Simon Pegg and his fearless ferret. Indeed, from the look of the “lost world” to the various interpersonal (or interspecies) issues drawn upon, the movie is definitely an improvement over the standard stereotypes and formulas employed by the genre. On the other hand, Saldanha and the gang have kind of painted themselves into a corner. The next film in the franchise will have to focus on kids, since the whole third act centers on Ellie giving birth, and when movies take such a turn toward the juvenile, a huge section of the audience ends up being left out. Still, if any series can find a way to make their next installment work, it’s Ice Age. While other wannabe franchises have come and gone, this one remains flexible, and fun. And as long as they keep casting talent like Pegg, they’ll be perfectly fine.