Going With The Floe

A blend of fre-wheeling slapstick and formulaic fable, 'Ice Age' lands mostly on solid ground

March 15, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The most engaging character in the animated feature Ice Age is Scrat, a half-squirrel, half-rat creature.

He scrambles across frigid prehistoric North America, trying to locate a stable piece of ice into which he can jam an acorn for storage. With curved fangs, enormous googly eyes, and hands and feet that alternately extend like a ballerina's or claw frozen surfaces like rusty ice picks, Scrat perfectly embodies hysteria. Desperation is his emotional base; any respite he wins is momentary.

He's the kind of hybrid creation that's always been a mainstay of animation, mixing recognizable human and animal behavior with outrageous action. He just wants to save his food supply, yet somehow he sets off a glacial conquest of the Earth - that epochal break in the environment known as the Ice Age.

Like Scrat, the whole movie is a hybrid. Its gleefully anarchic parody and slapstick hark back to the freewheeling visual hijinks pioneered by such men as the late Chuck Jones in Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes.

At the center, though, is a fable recalling the most formulaic Disney films, about a woolly mammoth (with the voice of Ray Romano) and a sloth (John Leguizamo) who unite to take an abandoned, motherless human child back to his tribe - and form their own alternative family along the way. The third lead is a saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary), who intends to serve up the baby and the mammoth to his pack, until fellow-feeling gets the better of him.

The movie is unequal parts calculation and inspiration. For example, none of the major characters are distinctive. Manny, the woolly mammoth, is a basic gentle giant (even his tusks are more like fenders); Sid, the sloth, is a cross between Scrat and a scraggly haired, earless kangaroo; and Diego, the tiger, is just a square-jawed predator.

But Wedge and company give them funny and compelling riffs. Leguizamo's sloth (who longs for the mammoth's approval), may never be as hilarious as Eddie Murphy's donkey in Shrek, but he has charming moments nonetheless - especially smaller ones, such as when he uses the mammoth's tail to protect himself from hail.

Romano's mammoth grows soothing as the action gets frenetic; he's a straight Manny for Sid. And the edgy menace of Diego removes any sentimental goo from the scenes of him and the sloth playing peek-a-boo with the infant.

What's most likable and occasionally inspirational is director Chris Wedge's willingness to doodle. As the characters glide all over the unmapped, they can't help mimicking Olympian sports from luge to slaloms.

Better yet are set pieces that Wedge throws in for the pure joy of nonsense and invention. The initial mass-migration scene has startling gags, including young ones rolling in a tar pit, playing a game called "Extinction."

A glorious interlude with survivalist dodo birds carries a welcome whiff of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear; the dodos, organized into an army, still manage to decimate themselves while protecting their stockpile of three melons.

Best of all, the sloth strolls through a crevice in a glacier - and ends up in an icy Museum of Natural Prehistory, which includes eerily real dioramas of a T-Rex caught in mid-grab, and a Close Encounters-like flying saucer.

Ice Age snaps with visual wit whenever director Wedge breaks the stale story to pieces and pumps in some bracing fresh air. So it's fitting to find, when the final credits roll, that he played Scrat.

Ice Age: Starring the voices of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, and Denis Leary

Directed by Chris Wedge

Rated PG

Released by 20th Century Fox

Running time 75 minutes

SUN SCORE: ** 1/2

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