The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature opens with the closest thing you’ve seen — at least, in an animated movie aimed at 5-year-olds — to a nut orgy. We’re in the basement of Nibbler’s Nut Shop, where Surly (Will Arnett), the purple squirrel with the grouchiness of a 1970s cab driver from Queens, is leading his band of fellow squirrels in an over-the-top midnight pig-out of nut-scarfing. And why not? They’re surrounded by burlap bags stuffed with artisanal nuts (already shelled!), which they swallow with such hungry abandon — there’s a frenzied nut-eating contest, as well as a grinder shooting out peanut butter like a beer bong — that it’s as if we’re watching an action sequence. Let it be proclaimed: Cal Brunker, the director of The Nut Job 2, gives good havoc.
There’s a school of animated filmmaking that says the more havoc the better, and The Nut Job 2 is very much of that school. If you want to laugh out loud the way you do at the wit of Pixar films or the Lego movies or Sausage Party or Despicable Me 3, then don’t get your hopes up. But if you want to see a relentless piece of slapstick bedlam that features a rolling Ferris wheel on fire and an actual mole playing whack-a-mole (“The very existence of this game offends me!”…followed by a great big smiling whack!), then this is the movie for you.
Early on, there’s a sequence of highly choreographed commotion in which Liberty Park, the lush and decorous public garden that’s home to Surly and his crew, gets wiped off the map by Mayor Muldoon (Bobby Moynihan), a drawling portly corrupt despot with a mustache-twirling leer who suggests Strom Thurmond as played by Chris Farley. His plan is to convert the expanse into Liberty Land, a profiteering amusement park that will eliminate every last inch of green. The mayor needs to get rid of the squirrels, too, so he stages a party of destruction with bulldozers and squirrel traps. Surly and his friends do their best to scamper out of the way, but that only adds to the mayhem.
As an animated entertainment, The Nut Job 2 lacks several key factors: memorable characters, a fun story, jokes that will appeal to adults as well as little kids. But one thing it does not lack is visual momentum (if you boil out the nuts, momentum is its principal subject), and the cityscape images, with their lavish picture-book clarity, remind you that the level of visual accomplishment in today’s digitally animated features has now reached a point where the animation can seduce your eye into distracting your ear from what would otherwise seem a rote and witless enterprise.
In some animated films, of course, the wit is in the images — in their mercurial speed and dazzle. But not always. The Nut Job 2 is a serviceable kiddie ride that’s at heart a rather repetitive chase comedy, with characters who rarely threaten to tickle the imagination. The result, by animation standards, will likely prove to be a so-so, one-weekend-and-then-down performer at the box office.
The film extends the cantankerous japery of The Nut Job (2014), a Canadian-South Korean co-production that, like this one, coasted along on more energy than flair. Once again, Will Arnett is the voice of Surly, and though you can tell how hard the talented Arnett is working to create a character, his dialogue consists of nonstop grousing; the result is that he comes off sounding like Ray Romano with a digestion problem. Katherine Heigl returns as Andie, the goody-two-shoes who’s become the sweet voice of culinary sanity, urging the squirrels to drop their nut-shop gluttony and return to hunting down honest acorns.
The rest of the squirrels (who include a few groundhogs and chipmunks) form a peanut gallery of background chatter that rarely allows them to distinguish themselves as characters. In one of the few bits that sparks the comedy to life, Maya Rudolph returns as the voice of Precious, the spunky pug who now has a love interest: Frankie (Bobby Cannavale), a bulldog who’s like a mook from the neighborhood. He’s got a heart of gold, but he’s also a crude customer who woos her by lapping up her regurgitated food (“What are you, vegan? It’s got no taste!”).
You know you’re watching an animated film that’s behind the curve when it tries to pass off another meta joke about cartoon animals breaking into song as if it were cutting edge. Surly and his best squirrel pal, who’s actually a rescue rat named Buddy (Tom Kenny), flee through Oakton City, down alleyways and on the bumpers of taxi cabs, trying to improvise a plan for how to undermine the Mayor. As soon as they come upon Mr. Feng, a white-furred mouse with adorable Walter Keane eyes who erupts into a martial-arts fury whenever anyone calls him “cute” (which is, of course, every time somebody sees him), you know exactly who’s going to save the day.
Jackie Chan, as the voice of Mr. Feng, provides the film with a welcome snap of comic devilry, and there’s a witty “old-movie” flashback of Feng and his army of warrior mice in formation like soldiers out of Red China. I would go so far as to say that they — more than these squirrels — deserve their own sequel. But if so, here’s a suggestion: Please give a few of them some personality.