We go to movies presumably to enjoy a good story. Yes, the writing is important, as are the acting, cinematography, score, set design — all the myriad things that must work together in service of the story. They are but tools intended for a larger purpose. Of course, too often one or more tools fail or the filmmakers put too much emphasis on them and forget the story altogether.
That seems to be the case with Ice Age: Continental Drift, the fourth installment of the Ice Age franchise by Blue Sky Studios. Terrific computer animation in digital 3D renders crisp detail in the animals’ fur and performs a virtuoso dance of light and shadow on ice and water.
But the movie feels overstuffed with way too many barely developed characters. The story could easily have been cut by a third and its building blocks could have been more artfully arranged. The film feels workmanlike, adequate but lacking zest. While the earlier installments had the obligatory subtext about doing the right thing and the importance of working together, the lessons in Continental Drift feel forced. Yes, kids, it’s important to obey your parents, value your friends, and not get caught up in the wrong crowd — good lessons all, but they come with the subtlety of an elbow to the ribs.
As with the first three Ice Ages, there are plenty of sight gags and pratfalls along the way with the usual gross-out jokes. And as always, Scrat the proto rat is the best part of these stories, with his Gilligan-like ability to blow a sure thing and a single-mindedness that makes Wile E. Coyote look positively ambivalent.
Last time we saw Manny the mammoth, Diego the saber-toothed tiger, and Sid the sloth in Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009), family was very much on everyone’s mind. Manny and his new main squeeze, Ellie, were expecting a baby. Sid had kidnapped some dinosaur eggs in order to have an instant family. (Bad idea to steal from a momma dinosaur!) Even Scrat was torn between his beloved acorn and an alluring female of whatever proto-squirrel-rat species he is. Only Diego, fearing he’d become too domesticated, was on the outs with the whole family thing.
Fast-forward a few years and the family theme blossoms in this movie. Manny (voiced by Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah) parent rambunctious teenager Peaches (Keke Palmer), a daddy’s girl who nevertheless strains at his leash. She wants to hang out with the cool kids, especially the dreamy Ethan (Drake), even if that means disobeying dad while dissing and ditching her one truly loyal friend, Louis the molehog (Josh Gad).
Sid (John Leguizamo) reunites with the family who abandoned him in the first installment of the story — but only long enough for them to deposit cranky and eccentric Granny (Wanda Sykes) before blowing town again. And Diego (Denis Leary) is about to learn that maybe this bachelor thing might not be so fulfilling once he meets the comely saber-toothed Shira (Jennifer Lopez), first mate to pirate Captain Gutt (a wonderfully over-the-top performance by Peter Dinklage).
The story, as always, is set in motion by Scrat in pursuit of that confounded acorn. He manages to trigger a fault line in the earth’s crust, splitting Pangaea into the various continents we know today. Manny and family, Sid and Granny, and Diego, along with sundry other prehistoric beasts, must race to the last remaining land bridge before they’re overrun by an advancing mountain range. Of course, nothing could be so simple. Peaches’ independent streak leads to complications that split the family, stranding Manny, Diego, Sid, and Granny on a floating ice floe.
That’s where they run into Gutt, a prehistoric ape who captains an icy pirate ship manned by scurvy scalawags with scary-looking weapons. He captures the group and does mean pirate things to them. (They have nothing to plunder, so what’s his motivation?) In the meantime, Ellie, Peaches, and the other animals are in imminent danger because the land bridge has vanished and the advancing mountains threaten to push them into the sea. Will our heroes escape the clutches of the evil pirate? Will the others find a way to escape certain death?
Any computer-animated movie today will inevitably be compared to the ur-animator, Pixar, which continues to set the standard for the medium. But the thing that makes Pixar stand out is not just its graphics. Pixar tells great stories. Toy Story. Cars. Wall-E. Finding Nemo. All visually dazzling, but all, first and foremost, great stories well told. Even the Pixar shorts such as Lifted, For the Birds, and Knick Knack are visually brilliant but also tightly constructed morality tales — and all very, very funny.
John Lasseter, Pixar’s tale-telling genius, understands that great CG is but one tool for spinning a yarn. It should not be an end in itself. He recently told the New York Times,
That’s what’s fun about computer animation: It’s a constantly growing medium. But if you tell a great story with great characters, it doesn’t matter. … Everyone wants to hear we’ll be able to technically do _________ in the future. It’s about telling great stories with memorable characters that are truly, deeply entertaining for the audience. They’re funny, but they have heart, and they move you. That’s a great animated film.
That’s a lesson the creators of Ice Age still haven’t learned after four films. Yes, the CG in Continental Drift is great, but the story is predictable and too long. The original characters were interesting the first time we met them, but they haven’t really grown, and now there are too many of them. Many feel like mere placeholders for when it’s time to impart Lesson 1 or Lesson 10 to the children this movie targets.
Speaking of which, children’s stories should still be entertaining for adults. C. S. Lewis, writing in Of Other Worlds, said, “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.”
Yes, Continental Drift makes a few nods to adults along the way, particularly with a running Braveheart gag likely to go over the head of anyone younger than 20, but those bits are few and far between. Interestingly, Phil Vischer, co-creator of the funny and inventive Veggie Tales, once told me that he would write the first draft of a story with adults in mind and then ask partner Mike Nawrocki to add silly stuff for the kids. They were great stories with great lessons that managed to make both adults and children laugh. It’s similar to what English writer George MacDonald said about his writing:
Children are not likely to trouble you about meaning. They find what they are capable of finding, and more would be too much. For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.
That’s great advice, something the Blue Sky folks should keep in mind for the future. There’s a big difference between childish and childlike. The former includes BO and fart jokes, both part of the Ice Age repertoire. The latter includes the wondrous adventure of learning that toys come alive when we’re not in the room or watching a dutiful robot fall in love.
Is Ice Age: Continental Drift a terrible movie? By no means. The many children at my screening seemed to enjoy it, and there was plenty of laughter. But it could have been so much better if they’d paid attention to the most important part: the story.