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Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Computer animation that's a real laugh

Ice Age

Rating: * * * 1/2
Directors: Carlos Saldanha, Chris Wedge
Running time: 82 minutes
Language: English, or dubbed in Japanese
Opens Aug. 3

Three cheers for computer animation and the whole new world of filmmaking it's spawned. It's given us everything from the tigers in "Gladiator" to the clone army in "Star Wars," and fantasy filmmaking is better for it. But when it comes to animated films, it offers a deadly seduction: realism.

Just look at "Final Fantasy," that utter bore of a film, where they created CG-humans right down to their pores. Aside from the staggering amount of Dilbertesque drudge work involved, aside from the slightly scary otaku idea of preferring programmable humans over real ones, and aside from the inescapable fact that the effect is more creepy than "real" -- it's missing the point completely. The fun with animation is that it isn't real: It's a plastic, anything-goes alternate universe and that's what makes it fun.

Fortunately, the makers of "Ice Age" have kept their cartoon sensibilities intact. While this is a very well-made film -- with absolutely fluid animation, painterly use of color and minutely detailed where necessary -- it's also a stylized one with canyon-deep plunges and surreal landscapes that are more "Road Runner" than real.

News photo
Diego, Scrat and Manny in "Ice Age"

The story of "Ice Age" is essentially the same as Pixar's "Monsters, Inc.," but set in prehistoric times, with a cute widdle baby being returned to home and hearth by some furry companions; in this case, a sloth, a woolly mammoth and a saber-toothed tiger.

The film begins with the pathetic little rodent Scrat triggering off a massive glacier shift when he tries to bury an acorn, a perfectly-played piece on unintended consequences that would make even Wile E. Coyote wince. The local wildlife and humans start to flee from the advancing ice. A couple of stragglers form an unlikely couple: loud-mouthed sloth Sid (voiced sibilantly by John Leguizamo) is left behind when he sleeps through the migration, so he imposes himself on Manny (Ray Romano), a loner mammoth who can barely tolerate Sid's incessant babble: "You're an embarrassment to nature, you know that?"

The duo stumble upon a human toddler, Roshan (Tara Strong), separated from his tribe after they fled an attack by a pride of sabertooths. One of the tigers, Diego (Dennis Leary), joins Sid and Manny, promising to help them locate the child's tribe, but really planning to lead them into an ambush.

The trio cross vast plains and underground ice tunnels, encountering some doomed-for-extinction dodos and that damned rodent and his acorn. The animals learn -- with the sort of overt moralizing you'd expect from a children's film -- to overlook their differences and antagonisms, and to value cooperation and friendship in order to survive. No surprises here, but director Chris Wedge does throw a little moral question at the young ones as well: How should we feel about Manny, the mammoth who's rescuing a human child even though his whole herd was hunted down by man? It's a small moment in the film, but played well, and it raises valid questions for kids on the relationship between man and nature.

As a kids' flick, "Ice Age" is a superior product, with characters you can really fall in love with -- mostly thanks to the brilliant facial animation that allows the critters to express loads of emotion. Manny, in particular, all trunk and tusks, has only his eyes to work with, but sometimes you'd swear he's smiling.

For the adults, "Ice Age" is more of a mixed bag. The sight-gags are astounding; particularly choice is a scene where Sid steals a melon and runs a gauntlet of dodos in a take-off of the bone-crunching gridiron scenes from "Remember the Titans."

The wordplay, though, is far less inspired: Leguizamo's babble as Sid isn't as annoying as Billy Crystal's in "Monsters, Inc.," but it comes close at times. And the same lazy "Flintstones"-esque idea of importing modern habits into prehistoric settings -- i.e. hot-tub tar pits -- is always on the verge of spoiling it all. Knowing, ironic jokes, like when Diego hisses at Sid, "You're a little low on the food chain to be mouthing off," serve to distance us from the milieu rather than draw us in.

On the plus side, however, there are no songs in the film, not even one, and any children's film without a Whitneyesque ballad gets the thumbs-up from this critic. "Ice Age" never quite hits the comic heights of "Toy Story" -- still the pinnacle of recent kid flicks -- but it's got heart and a better laugh-per-joke return than anything else on screen in this dire summer of 2002. Worth a look for Scrat's sequences alone, scenes of stupendously funny futility.

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