In 2002, in the wake of Shrek and Monsters, Inc, 20th Century Fox launched what was soon to become one of its most successful children’s franchises, Ice Age. With few expectations and little fanfare, it became a surprise worldwide, animated hit, rivaling both those other films, if not in total box office, then certainly in audience loyalty. Its two subsequent sequels, Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006) and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009) proved that unquestionably.
This week, Fox launches Installment 4, Ice Age: Continental Drift, and what was once a total surprise is now laden with great expectations. Unlike the original straight-ahead journey of our unlikely, but charming heroes, Manny (Ray Romano), Sid (John Leguizamo) and Diego (Denis Leary), along with the indomitable prehistoric squirrel, Scrat, and his acorn, audiences are hoping and expecting this new outing to be nothing less than extraordinary.
How do the the films match up against one another?
To help me see both films through a child’s eyes, I once again brought along my nine-year-old son, Jack. We hadn’t seen the original Ice Age on DVD since he was about five, so we viewed it together again before embarking together on this new adventure.
Ice Age: Continental Drift begins, as does the original, with Scrat (Chris Wedge) in pursuit of his acorn, causing the inevitable crack in the earth’s surface that will literally change the world. Manny, who now shares space with his wife Ellie (Queen Latifah) and daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer), is mainly worried about Peaches growing up and her new interest in boys. This immediately becomes irrelevant as a catastrophic earthquake rattles their universe and separates the continents – and Manny from his nuclear family.
Manny also has his original family, Diego and Sid, plus Sid’s newly found Granny (Wanda Sykes, in a movie-stealing role). With the earth changing beneath them, they are left adrift on an iceberg, where they spend the rest of the movie trying to help Manny get back to Ellie and Peaches before an approaching natural disaster swallows them all up.Along the way, they confront one obstacle after another, the biggest and most memorable being Captain Gutt, a pirate orangutan (Peter Dinklage), and his motley cohorts, who want to feed on the massive mammoth meat that is Manny while sailing the Seven (or maybe Twenty-Seven) Sea, newly formed by the shifting continents. Among that crew is Shira, a silver-maned saber-toothed tiger (Jennifer Lopez), who will become the queen of Diego’s future family. It is truly a journey of epic proportions, loaded with one dangerous and exciting adventure after another, and all in 3D.
After Scrat inadvertently causes causes the first of many cracks in the film franchise’s ice, we see most of the animals in the then-known universe migrating south – all except for a lone woolly mammoth, Manny, going the opposite way. He soon runs into and saves Sid, a prehistoric and none-too-pretty sloth, who becomes the hyper comedian and Barney Fife of Manny’s world. After joining forces with a duplicitous saber-toothed tiger named Diego, they become the caretakers of a human infant left behind after the child’s mother drowns while saving him from a band of angry saber-tooths.
Diego insists he can lead the trio of misfits back to the human tribe to return the infant – while actually leading them into an ambush by his own tribe of saber-toothed cutthroats, who want the baby for revenge and Manny and Sid for winter food. Along the way, they form an unorthodox herd, learning to depend on each other for survival and companionship in an otherwise dangerous, cruel and unpredictable world. It all culminates in the return of the infant to his father and Manny, Sid and the repentant Diego becoming a true family as they walk off into the distance.
In many animated movies I’ve seen with Jack in the past, including one of the other Ice Age sequels, I was always delighted, if not by the films themselves, then at least by the reactions of the kids in the audience: the squeals of laughter, the shock of surprise, and even, on occasion, the sentimental sniffing back of a tear or two. Yet, as Jack and I sat in the audience watching Ice Age: Continental Drift, I was surprised by a sound I was unprepared for — silence. More about that in a moment.
In discussing both films with Jack on the way home from the screening, I asked him which one he liked better and why. He was pretty succinct. He liked the first Ice Age a lot, but he really liked this new one. He found the first Ice Age simple and more dramatic, more serious. It was about an abandoned infant, a mother who died saving it, and the journey of our heroes to return it to its father. He loved the characters, laughed at their exploits and watched it intently.
Ice Age: Continental Drift was funnier, faster and more furious to him. And, most importantly, it was epic. Jack’s actual words: “It’s about the world falling apart. That’s big!” His favorite character was Sykes’ Granny, and the animation, he said, was “way better.”
Hard to argue those points. So why did I think the same movie was about the battering of senses? Why did I feel it was congested with forgettable characters, devoid of nuance or charm, crammed with everything but story and real heart? With more name voices and fewer real characters, it was a publicist’s dream but not a moviegoer’s. At least not an adult moviegoer.
I found the first Ice Age to be an unexpected joy — simple, heartfelt, witty and voiced superbly by three actors I would have never expected to be remotely good at it. They were virtually the whole movie, and oddly, it was enough, regardless of the sophistication of the animation. A straight line walked by three animated characters in a story that made it feel like a feature film and not a cartoon. It was one of the more pleasant surprises of my kid movie experiences with Jack.
As we drove home, Jack once again mentioned that Ice Age: Continental Drift was really funny and how much he liked the character of Granny.
And so, why the silence during the film?
This decision was a real dilemma for me, as a critic and as a father. I wanted Jack to see it my way so I could use his point of view as a reference for my own appreciation of the original film. But Jack and his audience of peers have become victims of the roller coaster. There is no time to laugh, no time to think, and no time to appreciate what they are seeing. It is fast and furious and all about the excitement of the moment. What may or may not be funny segments, and there were more than a few of each in the new Ice Age, are gone so quickly to make way for the next hairpin turn, that you almost forget them before they’re over. The kids in the audience simply didn’t have time to laugh. That’s my explanation for the silence. (There may be another one, too; you can guess what that is.)
If you’re a child, and that’s the target audience, the winner here would have to be Ice Age: Continental Drift. Fast and furious and funny ultimately triumphs in the movie world of kids today. And that’s what it’s all about – right? Batter ’em with 3D sensation for maximum impact. Except for one thing: I’m an adult; this is my Smackdown (sorry, Jack, I’ve got the byline); and I declare our winner to be the original Ice Age, which I found compelling for kids but infinitely more enjoyable for their chaperons. So there.