Does an action sequence over a boiling lake of lava sound familiar to you? How about a plot featuring fantasy characters who find themselves having to take care of a human baby while they figure out an elaborate plan to return the child to its rightful home? "Ice Age" (IMDb listing) is 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Production's attempt to throw their hat into the lucrative computer-generated cartoon ring. While friendly to a fault and speedily paced, "Ice Age" is far too derivative of other recent animated epics to form a lasting impression.
Manfred (voiced by Ray Romano) is a woolly mammoth on his way to a warmer climate when the ice age begins to take over the Earth. Along the way he meets a scatterbrained sloth named Sid (John Leguizamo) who instantly bonds with Manfred, even though the mammoth would rather be alone. Along their journey, the duo encounter a human baby who has been abandoned by his parents in an attempt to fend off a pack of vicious sabretooth tigers who are looking to eat the baby as revenge for being ruthlessly hunted. Manfred and Sid decide to take the baby, journey back into the cold depths and return the child to his lost parents. In their way is a duplicitous tiger named Diego (Denis Leary), who offers to act as a guide to the team with hopes to catch them off guard and snatch the baby.
"Ice Age" is coming after a stellar year for the computer animated genre, with blockbusters such as "Shrek," "Monsters, Inc." and "Jimmy Neutron." So can you fault the film for stealing little bits from each of those pictures? It's tough to with "Ice Age," but it does run dangerously close to outright plagiarism in some scenes. And while the film is technically competent, it's never as engaging as "Monsters, Inc." or "Toy Story." It feels too much like leftover casserole prepared by a studio grabby to nail some coin from a public very much in the mood to spend it.
That's not to say "Ice Age" doesn't have nice moments of its own. The voice work by the leads is charming and commanding. They don't fall into the trap of just being celebrity voices simply for marketing clout. There is a mid-movie sequence in which we learn Manfred's tragic past through 2-D animated cave drawings (eerily similar to the showstopping hieroglyphic sequence in "The Prince Of Egypt") that is heartfelt and quite refreshingly sad. And while I didn't laugh at the zany antics of "Ice Age," I'm thrilled the filmmakers kept the obnoxious post-modern inside jokes to a bare minimum (unlike the out-of-control "Shrek"). The humor does fall prey to poop jokes and the like, but for the majority of the running time, the film is clever and sincere without becoming overbearingly smug (again, see "Shrek").
The animation in "Ice Age" doesn't remind me of the kind of competitive behavior that Team Disney and DreamWorks thrive on when mounting their CG films. "Ice Age" has a pleasant, cartoony look to it, complete with the normal CG sheen and stiffness. It fits the story nicely. What I was surprised to see, especially in the afterglow of "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc.," is the rather clumsy rendering of the human characters. Looking like extras from the Dire Straits video "Money For Nothing," the humans in "Ice Age" bring down the rest of the artistry the picture had competently maintained up until that point.
If you take it for what it's worth, "Ice Age" is affable enough to skate by on the minimal charms it has. But take into account what the other studios are accomplishing yearly with their pictures, and "Ice Age" just doesn't stand up to that kind of harsh light comparison.
Filmfodder Grade: B-