[17 January 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There is perhaps no more obvious set of cinematic extremes than the ones found in the family film genre. On the one hand, Disney and Pixar continue to make unqualified magic, movies that will not only stand the test of time, but ones that make members of the cynical post-modern audience remember why they fell in love with the House of Mouse and its digital offshoot in the first place. Then you have the mediocrity, the CG wannabes who’ve squandered a sensational technically for stunt casting, prurient pop culture references, inept graphics, and that glorified gimmick, 3D. Granted, their lowest common denominator pandering produces beaucoup cash for the companies they serve, but no one (with a brain, that is) is going to suggest that Madagascar or Ice Age are on par with Frozen, Toy Story, Wreck-It Ralph, or The Incredibles.
No, everyone knows that parents need electronic babysitters, and if you position yourself just right and create some memorable little figures that scream “merchandise me” you too can see a Despicable Me like payout. Call it the act of not trying very hard, or knowing your demographic too well, but family films seem configured to maximize profits, not fun. Of course, when they try to be something else—ParaNorman, Coraline—they typical land with a limited return thud. Into such a schism comes The Nut Job, the first film to be co-produced by both Western and South Korean interests. Directed by former animator Peter Lepeniotis and set within a strange neo-noir world of dizzy dames and dark, brooding mob bosses, this is one odd entry into the whole kid vid collective. And it’s not very entertaining.
The story centers on Surly (voiced by Will Arnett), a cynical squirrel who has an on-again, mostly off-again relationship with the other critters living in a beautiful park in the middle of the fictional city of Oakton. Their leader is Raccoon (Liam Neeson) and his main concern is gathering enough food for the winter to feed everyone (read: A Bug’s Life, or Over the Hedge). His main helpers, squirrels Andie (Katherine Heigl) and Grayson (Brendan Fraser) are usually ahead of the game, but as winter slowly approaches, the animals don’t have enough inventory.
In the meantime, Surly and his mute rat buddy Buddy decide to knock over a peanut cart for their individual needs. When Andie and Grayson interfere, the entire park stockpile is destroyed. Surly is banished to the big city where he finds an entire nut warehouse just ripe for the picking. Unfortunately, a recently paroled criminal named King (Stephen Lang) is using the place as a hideout. His plan? Tunnel underneath the building to the connecting bank and rob the vault. Naturally, Surly, Andie and the rest of the animals muck up their efforts.
With a gorgeous backdrop and decent design work, The Nut Job certainly looks like an animated wonder circa 2014. It has goofy, likeable characters, life lessons about sharing and being part of the solution, not the problem, and the requisite number of fart jokes mandated by such grade school level humor. At times, this movie feels like it’s at odds with itself, supported by a strong artistic vision and yet stunted by the needs of a modern mainstream cartoon. Back in the day, animation was for adults. It was when the artform hit TV that the Looney Tunes suddenly became popular on the playground. Ever since then, studios have slowly dumbed down the genre to the point where these movies no longer need to make sense. Instead, thrown in some anthropomorphized animals or objects, a few jabs at current trends (for The Nut Job, it’s Asian flash in the pan Psy) and enough eye candy to keep Junior still and the world is your box office oyster.
Of course, this movie hopes to buck the trend by having the humans resemble cast-offs from a pen and ink version of a ‘50s gangster film, complete with thick necks, broad shoulders, muzzle stubble, and a blond bombshell gal pal named Lana, who offers nothing except curves to the narrative. She’s the people equivalent of a pug dog named Precious (voiced by Maya Rudolph) whose presence is meant to moderate our mobsters obvious propensity toward violence. After all, how could they be all that mean when they love their little puppy and pretend to play nice in front of Lana? Elsewhere, the villainous nature of some of the characters is obviously hidden behind the standard storyline formulas, the last act denouement meant to show everyone that power makes you selfish and greedy, no matter your species.
But what The Nut Job is really lacking is a hook (and no, we don’t mean the less than necessary appearance of “Gangnam Style”). It doesn’t pop, not in the generic voice work or its often colorful creativity. It’s like a nice and nominal TV special you’d find on some family-oriented cable channel, its often low budget leanings obvious in both the artistic and aesthetic department (did you really have to borrow the design of Remy from Ratatouille for the look of Buddy???). Perhaps with a harder edge, maybe without the awkward reliance on the trappings of the 21st century, this would have been a clever and convincing throwback.
Instead, The Nut Job is the Billy Pilgrim of contemporary mainstream movies, unstuck in time and unsure of how to get back to its proper place. While not a classic, or a horrible piece of crap, this movie sits somewhere smack dab in the middle of mediocrity. From its premise and presentation, there wasn’t much hope for The Nut Job. Audiences over the age of six will find it aggravating, not entertaining.