`Ice Age' artists look toward their next era

Movie: A new project is in the works for the crew of the recent animated hit.

Film

March 22, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Reached by phone in his White Plains, N.Y., office, Chris Wedge, director of the computer cartoon Ice Age, acknowledges that he and his Blue Sky Studios are already at work on a new project - though he's so intent on secrecy, he would neither confirm nor deny a report that it centers on robotic creatures from the pen of kids' book great William Joyce.

Trying to keep his crew together has been a challenge, Wedge says, because digital animation carries such prodigious overhead and Ice Age prevented them from maintaining their usual connections in the world of TV commercials.

But even before Ice Age opened a week ago, Wedge said Blue Sky and the folks at Twentieth Century Fox were "feeling all warm and fuzzy" - a good portent for future collaborations. And the warmth and fuzz must have sprouted with the greenhouse effect of a $47 million first-weekend gross.

Wedge admitted that he felt "a tremendous amount of pressure" laboring on his first feature, especially one with a premise that Fox brought to him in an entirely different form.

The initial outline for Ice Age was a straight action-adventure, set in prehistory and "not humorous at all. The result is a film that's almost schizophrenic but seems to work. We move to a poignant moment, pop in a gag - and you can hear the relief in the audience. All the contrasts make the movie feel really full to me. I don't know if we had started with a funny story whether it would be as gripping as it is."

As self-respecting artisans, Wedge and company also felt stress beyond bringing Fox a profit and getting the chance to make another movie: "It comes from our colleagues at places like Pixar [Monsters, Inc.], where they raise the bar about a foot every time they come out with something."

The urge to keep digging for humor that would also contribute to the narrative drive resulted in their creation of the half-squirrel, half-rat Scrat, who does a broken-field run through the entire movie, leaving a succession of belly laughs in his wake.

Drawing on their research at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, they figured that "the first mammals were the smallest ones, like shrews and lemurs. When we came up with the idea for the opening sequence" - that a character would trigger the Ice Age and that the Ice Age would then seem to stalk him - "we tried to think of the most hapless, helpless creature we could find." Scrat, vainly trying to store an acorn, was "an obvious choice."

But Wedge, with a laugh, confesses Scrat may have emerged from his experience "chasing squirrels out of the walls and off the roof of my house. I suppose subconsciously it was my way of working that out."

Probably the next-funniest characters are the survivalist dodo-birds who band together in an army and prove woefully incompetent at protecting their extravagant stockpile of three melons.

"We were working on this idea around the time of Y2K, and hearing about the idiots who were building bunkers out in the Midwest and stocking them with guns and ammo and a million cans of tuna fish. Part of the joke is that we know the dodos are going to be extinct anyway - but I love the irony that they will outlive everyone else in this movie."

Cinema Sundays

Cinema Sundays at the Charles had a sellout this season with its most of-the-moment movie, Kandahar. Series organizers must hope to repeat that success with their season finale this Sunday: the Baltimore premiere of an equally topical Israeli/American feature, The Holy Land.

The story of an unconventional Israeli rabbinical student - he frequents a seedy bar with Arab, Christian and Jewish customers, and finds himself enthralled with a Russian prostitute - the movie won the Grand Jury Prize for best feature film at the 2002 Slamdance Film Festival. (Jurors included Penelope Spheeris, the director of Wayne's World and The Decline of Western Civilization, as well as Cinema Sundays' host, Gabriel Wardell.) Its Sunday showing is part of this year's Slamdance "On the Road" program, which will continue in May at the Maryland Film Festival.

The movie marks the feature-directing debut of Silver Spring native Eitan Gorlin, himself a veteran of a West Bank yeshiva, a tank unit and saloons. Gorlin, who also attended the University of Pennsylvania and the New School, had been out of Israel for four or five years before making this movie. But he told his investors, "I can go to Israel and be back in four months with a coherent film about God, war and prostitution."

Deborah Walike, arts editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, will moderate the discussion. Doors open at 9:45 a.m.; showtime is 10:30. The ticket price, $15, includes bagels and coffee. For more information, go online to www.cinemasundays.com.

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