Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: Ice Age Continental Drift

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the Ice Age films.  On one hand, I greatly enjoy the first film in the series.  It had a real nice relaxed pace to it with a some great quirky characters.  The film was also willing to shift from cartoon-y action packed slapstick to some genuinely quiet and heartfelt moments.  Overall, a very solid family film that almost anyone could enjoy.

And then they decided to make sequels, starting with Ice Age: The Meltdown.  The series managed to survive one sequel reasonably unscathed.  It was a lot goofier than the first movie but it managed to maintain some of the same tone that made the first movie so enjoyable and it still told a decent story that followed up Manny's character arc pretty nicely.  Then things really went off track with the third one, Dawn of the Dinosaurs.  Sid sums it up pretty well in Continental Drift when he says, "We fought dinosaurs in the ice age!  It didn't make sense but it sure was exciting!"  Any semblance to the first film was gone by that point.  Subtlety and character development were abandoned entirely for over the top pratfalls and cheap jokes.  Not even Scrat, the acorn-obsessed rodent who consistently provides the best humor in the series, could save Dawn of the Dinosaurs.

But it made a ton of money and now we have Ice Age Continental Drift.  Scrat, in his never ending attempt to bury his acorn, manages to break through the Earth's core, causing Pangaea to separate into the individual continents we know and love today.  And, seriously, these continents are booking it.  Earthquakes abound as huge land masses break apart and drift off into the ocean.  It recalls the visuals of the ice bowl breaking apart in The Meltdown but on a much MUCH larger scale.  In the ensuing chaos Manny, Diego, and Sid are thrust out to sea on a tiny chunk of ice with no means of getting back.

Manny, of course, is desperate to return to his wife Ellie and their daughter Peaches.  Remember Peaches?  She was born at the end of the last movie?  Yeah, she's inexplicably a teenager already to try and draw in that ever lucrative tween demographic.  But we'll get to that later.  Sid is stuck keeping an eye on his crazy grandmother who was left in his care prior to the earth-shattering side effects of Scrat's antics. just kind of there, as he has been for the previous two films.  But not to worry!  He actually gets something to do in this film...

Bring on the pirates!  I'm not kidding.  Pirates.  More specifically animal pirates, led by Captain Gutt, a gorilla with a hairdo that conveniently resembles a pirate hat.  Gutt and his dastardly band of scallywags sale the seas and steal fruit from the...other animals who must be out there for some reason.  Seriously, how can they be pirates?  These are animals we're talking about!  How did they even get out there in the first place?  Are there animal sailors?  Animal ports to rob?  And what ever happened to those humans from the first movie?  Did humans go extinct?

Anyway, yeah, animal pirates.  Even though Manny, Granny, Sid, and Diego don't really have anything to steal, Gutt captures them anyway with the intent of either forcing them to be part of his crew or making them walk the plank.  Meanwhile, Manny tries to hatch a plan to capture Gutt's "ship" so they can catch a ride back home on a current.  And there's also some stuff about enslaving little Ewok-lookin' things and also a love interest is introduced for Diego.  (See?  I told you he has a  purpose in this film.)  Oh, and then some deadly sirens show up to menace the group for no particular reason, too.  Did you know that sirens existed during the ice age?  Me neither.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the continent continues to split apart causing a giant cliff to start rapidly encroaching on the herd's home.  So it's Ice Age 2 all over again as the pack of assorted animals heads out in a race against time to reach safety in the form of a land bridge that's safe because...Manny said it was.  Except, with Manny now off battling pirates it's up to Ellie, the only other adult mammoth around, to take charge and lead the way.  Meanwhile, Peaches struggles with the fact that she doesn't quite fit in with the other mammoths because she's half-possum (because that's hereditary?) and ends up insulting her molehog friend, Louis, while trying to impress a group of teenaged mammoths.  Awkward hijinks ensue.

Whew.  Let me catch my breath.  Apparently the filmmakers decided to take a page out of the Pirates of the Caribbean book, and made their movie as convoluted as possible.  Continental Drift suffers from an issue that has plagued the Ice Age franchise from the second installment on: there are way too many characters.  Plus, how are there other teenage mammoths?  Where are those mammoths' parents?  Manny and Ellie are the only adult mammoths shown.  What happened to all the other mammoths?  Oy.

Okay, I've ranted enough. Time to be more positive.  First, I can say this:  Ice Age Continental Drift is a massive improvement over Dawn of the Dinosaurs.  The franchise has definitely wandered to a place so far from what the original film was about that it's barely recognizable as the same franchise.  That said, if the filmmakers wish to take the series in a much more over-the-top cartoony direction and abandon the pseudo-reality of the first film, this feels like a much better way to go about doing so.  The pirates, though out of place, actually do make for some reasonably compelling villains.  And the love interest plot for Diego, though obvious and predictable, is handled in a way that really does seem to give Diego's character some badly needed purpose again.  And it's certainly a better subplot than being terrified of water.  Peaches' story is pretty painful to watch, but Ellie filling Manny's shoes as the leader of the herd is probably the best role she's had yet.

Series veteran John Powell returns to provide the score for the third time.  Powell both follows and breaks my number one rule about sequel soundtracks: retaining character themes and continuity with previous films.  While David Newman's character themes introduced and used to great effect in the first film are once again absent, Powell continues to weave the themes he introduced in The Meltdown into the score of Continental Drift.  So, at the very least, the three Ice Age sequels have a nice consistent sound to their soundtracks.

 It's also worth noting that Scrat is back in fine form this time around.  Whereas the increased emphasis on over-the-top slapstick feels odd with the other characters, it greatly benefits Scrat.  And, thankfully, Scratte, the awful love interest of the previous film, is nowhere to be found save for a very brief (and fitting) cameo.  Scrat is back to his usual acorn chasing antics and while his role is much less prominent this time around, it may be some of the funniest material with him yet.

So, in the end, Ice Age Continental Drift is a vast improvement on its predecessor, Dawn of the Dinosaurs.  Some characters do get lost in the shuffle, but I really did find myself enjoying a lot of scenes and the film does manage to deliver some legitimately good jokes.  Including a few that aren't even in the trailer!   It still falls short of the original Ice Age, but of the three sequels that followed it, Continental Drift may be the best of the bunch.

Peaches:  "So, tell me.  When exactly will I be allowed to hang out with boys?"
Manny:  "When I'm dead.  Plus three days.  Just to make sure I'm dead."

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