Ice Age poses a heretofore unfathomable question: Is it possible for computer-generated characters to go through the motions? Everything about this endeavor -- from 20th Century Fox, playing cartoon catch-up after 2000's Titan A.E., which seemed to be stolen from Saturday-morning television -- feels pilfered and stitched together. There's not an original fossil in its entire furry body.
The story, about cuddly and mismatched mammals forced to raise and return a lost human baby to its own "herd," renders it a cross between Three Men and a Baby and Monsters, Inc. But it's bereft of the charisma of the former and the energy of the latter; stuck in a frozen wasteland, it possesses all the vigor of a Popsicle. And its look -- provided by the Blue Sky Studios team, including director Chris Wedge, who was responsible for the sweet and poignant Oscar-winning animated short Bunny in 1998 -- no longer has the capacity to delight and dazzle. It's one more computer-generated bit of animation in which everything is intended to look real and surreal at once; the humans, especially, look silly and slight, as though they're sketches awaiting final animation. Even the soundtrack seems secondhand: Instead of Randy Newman providing the score, as he did for Pixar's Toy Story films and Monsters, Inc., the filmmakers instead hired his cousin David.
Yet for all that, Ice Age isn't entirely unlikable, not because it's humorous or particularly clever (its gags, such as they are, often fail to elicit more than a weary chuckle), but because it's ultimately bittersweet -- it's less a comedy than an accidental domestic drama that happens to be dolled up in kiddie-merch drag. It is, in many ways, the perfect family movie: A resilient child nearly dies in the same river that claims his mother, only to find his way home again, and an embittered father (and father figure) who's lost his own wife and child has his faith (and heart) restored. The comic moments only distract from and deflect the underlying sentiment; it's as though the filmmakers, whose earlier effort proved you can indeed tell a heartbreaking tale using CG furballs and insects, felt they couldn't play it straight, so they had to bend their tale until it broke in half. (And it's astonishing that it took two screenwriters to fashion something so obvious and hoary.)
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Ray Romano, all Jersey monotone, plays a mammoth named Manfred who refuses to migrate to sunnier climes with the other primitive mammals; he's a sulky beast possessing a tragic secret he keeps to himself. While other parents and kids are heading away from the snow and playing in the muck ("You can play Extinction later," an elephant pop tells his young ones covered in tar), Manfred sloshes toward a certain doom. Though the film never explicitly says so, it's as though Manny, as he comes to be known, is slowly committing suicide -- the reasons for which are explained later, more or less, in a simple, moving scene played out with animated cave drawings.
Along the way, Manny picks up unwanted company: Sid, a gibbering sloth voiced by John Leguizamo like an outtake from one of his one-man shows, and Diego (Denis Leary), a sabertoothed tiger seeking the baby's blood as revenge. Diego poses more of a threat than the encroaching snowstorm: He's doing the bidding of his boss, Soto (ER's Goran Visnjic), and his fellow sabertooths (including Jack Black and Diedrich Bader), who want the baby and the mammoth as fresh meat. Diego will either betray his newfound cohorts or discover -- at the last moment -- a conscience.
The scenes in which these three unlikely partners raise their new child -- Pinky, as they refer to it -- work best; they display a rare, welcome tenderness. But the trio lacks the playful camaraderie of Monsters, Inc.'s Billy Crystal and John Goodman, who riffed off each other like Catskills comics who've been feeding each other borscht-belt yuks for decades. Romano, Leary and Leguizamo seem to be talking at each other, never to one another; they're stand-up comics doing shtick solely to impress the other guys. Cedric the Entertainer and Stephen Root, as a gay-straight couple of rhinos craving that one last fresh dandelion, feel more connected. Best of all is the film's squeaky squirrel, Scrat (Chris Wedge), who scampers through scenes in search of what appears to the world's last remaining acorn; he carries his nut, and the film, on his scrawny shoulders.
Unfortunately, the film's not entirely without the pop-culture references that rendered Shrek as disposable as its already-stale jokes; an unfortunate Star Trek gag makes it in, ruining a good visual ploy by underscoring its obviousness. One scene, featuring crackpot dodo birds prophesying the approaching ice age and, hence, the end of the world, is as close to Simpsons territory as Ice Age gets. But it's welcome entirely because it invigorates the screen, which is filled too much with white sheets of ice and various shades of animal-pelt brown. Where Pixar's offerings dazzle without overdoing it, Ice Age goes in the opposite direction: Its look is almost boring. So, too, is much of its story. If only it didn't feel the need to keep us laughing, the sad plight of the big-studio cartoon, it might have kept on moving.