Scrat the sabre-toothed squirrel gets a well-earned promotion from series mascot to plot catalyst in Ice Age: Continental Drift, the anticfourth entry in the hugely successful computer-animated franchise.
As Scrat’s star rises, however, the series’ momentum stalls. Faced with the prospect of deviating from the well-trodden tracks of its predecessors, the scriptwriters clearly got cold feet, merely substituting kid-friendly pirates for the kid-friendly dinos of 2009’s Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs as Manny the woolly mammoth and his prehistoric cohorts embark on yet another epic journey studded with sentimental bromides.
None of this will matter to the very young target audience, who will giggle along with the helter-skelter action sequences and the fusillade of wisecracks and sight gags.
The last of three animated tentpoles to roll out this summer, after DreamWorks’ Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wantedand Pixar’s Brave, Fox’s technically assured 3D offering can still expect a warm reception.
With the core trio of Manny (Ray Romano), Sid the goofy sloth (a hilarious John Leguizamo) and the tiger Diego (Denis Leary) getting a bit long in the tooth -- it’s almost 10 years between the first Ice Age and this one -- scriptwriters Michael Berg and Jason Fuchs corral a menagerie of newcomers and shoehorn in a number of subplots to distract from a musty storyline.
In this go-round, the world literally falls apart as Scrat’s Sisypheanpursuit of his prized acorn results in a seismic shift that tears asunder Earth’s prehistoric supercontinent, Pangea. (The filmmakers have as much regard for geological history as they did for paleontology in the previous installment.)
Our mismatched heroes are set adrift on a chunk of ice, with Manny separated from his mate Ellie (Queen Latifah) and their now-teenage daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer, who also sings the end-credits song “We Are”).
They’ve picked up a troublesome stowaway in the form of Sid’s Beverly Hillbillies-like granny (Wanda Sykes), while back on shore Peaches is trying to keep up with the cool-kid mammoths (hip-hop star Drake, rapper Nicki Minaj and Glee cheerleader Heather Morris) and managing to alienate her best friend Louis, a molehog voiced by Josh Gad (star of the Broadway hit Book of Mormon.)
Peter Dinklage voices the best of the new recruits, a simian pirate king with very bad teeth named Captain Gutt. His rag-tag crew of high-seas marauders, which includes a love interest for Diego in Shira the white tiger (Jennifer Lopez), join Mother Nature at her crankiest in trying to thwart Manny and co.’s journey home.
It’s familiar, drawn-out shtick, and the humor lacks the subtlety of the first and best Ice Age, but there are some visually inventive high points.
The wordless interludes featuring Scrat as slapstick comedian nonpareil not only generate the biggest laughs but provide little oases of aesthetic delight. And there’s an unsettling journey through the land of the Sirens, where the atmosphere turns dark and weird for just a moment, before Steve Martino (Horton Hears a Who), co-directing with Michael Thurmeier, steers it back into safer waters.
The animation by Fox’s Blue Sky Studios improves with each installment and here it is vividly rendered, with the design of each prehistoric critter a marvel of state-of-the-art technology down to the last hair.
Opens: Australia, June 25; U.S. July 13 (20th Century Fox)
Production company: Blue Sky Studios
Cast: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Queen Latifah, Peter Dinklage, Jennifer Lopez, Wanda Sykes, Keke Palmer
Directors: Steve Martino and Michael Thurmeier
Screenwriters: Michael Berg, Jason Fuchs
Producers: John C. Donkin, Lori Forte
Director of photography: Renato Falcao
Music: John Powell
Editors: James Palumbo, David Ian Salter
Rated PG, 94 minutes