If you follow film industry logic, Ice Age is destined to be a mega-blockbuster because ... well, it’s computer-animated, and computer animation is the future, and that’s just the way the world works.
Make no mistake—the dawn of the 21st century looks grim for conventional hand-drawn animation, with Disney recently axing hundreds of animators’ jobs and 20th Century Fox dismantling its entire animation division. Then again, Hollywood’s sense of history only goes back about as far as the date on the carton of milk in your fridge. Yes, the computer-animated Shrek and Monsters, Inc. were successful. True, the hand-drawn Titan A.E., Osmosis Jones and Atlantis: The Lost Empire were disappointments. No one, however, seems to remember that the computer-animated bore Final Fantasy lost millions of dollars last summer, or that Disney was about to give up feature cel animation entirely before the exuberant The Little Mermaid rejuvenated the genre in 1989. A badly-told story never gets the blame for anything that flops in Hollywood, just like a well-told story never gets the credit for anything that succeeds.
Ice Age seems destined to continue computer animation’s winning streak, primarily thanks to a brilliant marketing campaign. But this may be a test case for the “computer animation is gold” theory, because it’s only a moderately well-told story, and not a particularly original one. The plot throws together three pre-historic beasts on a journey to return a lost human baby to his people. Manfred (voiced by Ray Romano) is a surly, anti-social mammoth migrating against the tide of advancing icecaps; Sid (John Leguizamo) is a ne’er-do-well sloth looking to Manfred for protection. And Diego (Denis Leary) is a saber-toothed tiger secretly leading them into an ambush, unless his conscience gets the better of him first.
Director Chris Wedge was one of the pioneers of cinematic computer animation—he worked on Tron back in the day—so it should come as no surprise that Ice Age looks remarkable. Technological advances in lighting, motion and shadow give the film’s world luster and texture, and the whimsical character designs recall a throwback Rankin-Bass-meets-Aardman stop motion aesthetic. When gifted craftspeople are creating film universes this distinct in three dimensions, it is easy to understand the appeal of this new art form.
If only Ice Age’s screenplay were nearly as carefully crafted. It’s not so much the story elements familiar from other recent computer-animated films—the Manfred/Sid relationship dynamic echoing Shrek and Donkey, the little-child-lost plot from Monsters—since there was too much production overlap to suggest Ice Age was cribbing. There’s simply a more overarching sloppiness at play in the script by Michael Berg, Michael J. Wilson and Peter Ackerman. They create a trauma for Manfred involving humans, then refuse to play up his potential conflicting emotions regarding helping a human baby. The primary villain, Diego’s saber-toothed pack leader Soto (Goran Visjnic), comes with similar anti-human baggage, yet there’s no attempt to create character parallels that could have added to the dramatic tension. The characters are cut from whole cloth, but Ice Age rarely takes the time to stitch the individual pieces together.
It’s true that Ice Age earns plenty of solid laughs, mostly from the inspired lunacy involving the twitchy rodent Scrat’s Coyote-vs.-Road Runner battle to find a hiding place for his one slippery acorn. Wedge and his writers occasionally come up with brilliant ideas, like casting dodo birds as paranoid survivalists, or having the snarling Diego try to play peek-a-boo. If you’re looking for a few chuckles, you could do a lot worse.
You could also do a lot better. Ice Age is a family-appeal film that tries to be too many things at once, scrambling up an awkward mix of Disney sentimentality, Chuck Jones zaniness and obligatory poop jokes. Pixar’s Toy Story films set a high standard not just because they were technologically astonishing, but because they blended wit and high adventure, developing characters with a real emotional depth in the process. Ice Age proves to be little more than a great-looking diversion. Computer animation may be the wave of the future, but these films will only have a chance to soar when it doesn’t feel like the scripts were generated by a computer as well.