Ice Age (2001)

D: Carlos Saldanha, Chris Wedge
S: Voices of: Ray Romano, Jon Leguizamo, Denis Leary

As the ice age looms, a sloth, a mammoth, and a sabre-tooth tiger take on the task of returning a human baby to his tribe before the freeze closes a gap in the mountains which leads to the humans' winter camp. Along the way they face various dangers from both the natural elements and some of the various animals who populate the prehistoric landscape. Their motives for this act of charity are mixed, but none more so than the tiger, who is secretly trying to lead the others to his pack, where they will be eaten and his status will be assured.

In spite of a wonderful teaser trailer, which is essentially the first few minutes of the film, this is a disappointingly routine adventure film which brings nothing new to a tired formula. We have seen this type of thing dozens of times, usually done by Disney. It is not always in animated form, but the most recent variant was their long-awaited and terminally dull Dinosaur. Ice Age is better than that film, but it is still far too familiar to be very good entertainment. Incredibly, the story and screenplay are accredited to a small committee of nine (count 'em: nine) writers, including Michael J. Wilson, Michael Berg, and Peter Ackerman, but even children will know the beats before they strike. Though small fry may be more likely to enjoy it regardless of generic boredom, it is poor competition for the likes of Toy Story 2 or Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.

The film does offer a variety of striking visuals of the ice-bound landscape. Computer imagery has liberated animators in terms of the fluidity with which environments and characters can now be generated. Ice Age is alive with colourful, texture and shade-rich images which make great use of a relatively limited palette. The individual scenes are both well designed and filled with fluid action, so the film is not without its pleasures. This aspect of the film is pleasing to animation buffs, but the story seriously detracts from it. That said there is one narratively irrelevant scene involving a flock of demented dodos which is fun, and the film does make use of the landscape, flora and fauna of its setting for such set pieces. Against this there is a pointless ice slide roller-coaster scene which looks great but adds nothing. In the age of the unbound imagination, sometimes the questions which need to be asked of animators is not what they can do but why they are doing it.

In its favour, the script emphasises humour over ponderous moralising (which is where it scores over Dinosaur) and has been well voice-cast to support its approach. Ray Romano drips with gruff sarcasm as the initially unapproachable mammoth with a predictable dark past. Jon Leguizamo is the sloth, who staggers around like a prehistoric Roger Rabbit, but does well enough under the circumstances. Denis Leary has been perfectly cast as the tiger, and is able to bring plenty of menace to his put-downs and one-liners. The problem is that there are few moments which really surprise you, no matter how old you are, and most of the dialogue is pretty trite. Ironically, the best character in the film is the jittery sabre-toothed squirrel who was the subject of most of the teaser advertising and who has no dialogue at all. There isn't that much of him in it, actually, but he features in the opening scene where his pitched battle to bury a nut in the ice makes for what is far and away the most enjoyable few minutes in the picture.

Ice Age will probably pass the time harmlessly enough for younger viewers, but adults may find it wearingly familiar. There are better films out there now and it seems strange that Fox should try to compete with Disney by copying their formulae when clearly there are so many other ways to go in the age of the animation renaissance.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.