Ice Age: Continental Drift is more like a Happy Meal than a movie. It’s another serving of exactly the same product that millions of families have been served before and will come back to again and again. Its brand-name familiarity and reassuring sameness are its stock in trade. Nothing is different except for the toys: Last time it was dinosaurs; this time it’s pirates. It’s more resolutely like the three previous Ice Age movies than they are like themselves.
Oh, the pros and cons of each film shift about. The original is the only one that really works: a nice exercise in shtick, with some real heart amid the clunkier bits, and the crowd-pleasing wordless slapstick of Scrat the saber-squirrel. The second installment, The Meltdown, was at a complete loss for what to do with its trio of heroes, but Scrat upped his game to nearly sublime silent comedy. Dawn of the Dinosaurs suffered from an infusion of uncharacteristic DreamWorks-style raunchy humor. Still, in both sequels you could see a creative energy at work — the contribution of director Carlos Saldanha, perhaps, who didn’t quite hit his stride until Rio.
But in the way that matters most, the franchise hasn’t changed a jot since the first film: Our three heroes — Manny the mammoth, Sid the sloth and Diego the saber (Ray Ramano, John Leguizamo and Denis Leary) — have remained static as characters, and life in their motley “herd” goes on with no development of any kind in their relationships, such as they are.
Think of the Toy Story sequels, both of which turned on the central relationships — among the toys and between the toys and Andy — being in flux and in question. Even the Shrek sequels threw Shrek and Fiona’s marriage into deep water (except for the series clunker, Shrek the Third). These films worked because the characters were pushed to the point of asking: Who am I, and what am I doing here? Do I belong here? Is this really who I am?
Dawn of the Dinosaurs took a half-hearted stab at that, with Diego fearing that he’d lost his predatory edge hanging out with herbivores, but that subplot had no teeth (rimshot) because Diego’s carnivority had always been theoretical anyway. (The first Madagascar movie did the carnivore-among-herbivores thing better. Gosh, this is depressing to write.)
For the most part, the Ice Age sequels have been relying on the strategem of exhausted sitcoms: Keep it going by adding new characters. Have a wedding. Have a baby. In the second installment, Manny found a new mate, Ellie (Queen Latifah), and in the third, Manny and Ellie had a child, Peaches, who is now a teenager (Keke Palmer of Akeelah and the Bee, a much better film). A pair of daredevil possums are still hanging around from the second film, though they contribute nothing. Buck the weasel from the third film has a cameo in Continental Drift so fleeting that you could literally miss it if you blink.
In Continental Drift, Sid’s long-lost family reappears, briefly threatening to break his character out of amber. But no, they just dump Sid’s elderly granny (Wanda Sykes) on him and bolt. Peaches is giving Manny agita by crushing on boys and hanging out at the local teen hangout. Then Manny is separated from his family when tectonic upheavals send our three heroes drifting out to sea, where they encounter a menagerie of animal pirates, including a menacing primate captain (Peter Dinklage, better than the movie deserves) and a feline first mate (Jennifer Lopez) who rattles the saber (Diego, I mean). Oh, and there are sirens, too. Yes, really.
What none of these additions, complications or random developments do is bring any new juice to the triad of Manny, Sid and Diego or make them and their relationship interesting again. Even that creative spark that ran through the last two sequels is gone, along with director Saldanha, who’s left the reins to Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier (collaborators on Horton Hears a Who!).
Although the animation is another evolutionary leap forward (rimshot), in the whole film there is only one image I remember liking: The pirate ship’s flag is a badger who clings to the top of the flagpole with its flat body extended, displaying a skull and crossbones on its back, but ready to show its white belly in a pinch. That is funny.
Still, in keeping with its Happy Meal status, Ice Age: Continental Drift will doubtless rock the box office, dwarfing the receipts of better family films that offered family audiences something they hadn’t seen before and therefore ignored. Hang originality, parents say. Bring us more Madagascar and Ice Age. A privileged look at the hidden lives of tiny people under floorboards? A gorgeously ornate fairy-tale world full of color and whimsy? A loopy swashbuckler pitting Charles Darwin against Queen Victoria? Meh. Bring on the slapstick animals and butt jokes.
All this talk about Happy Meals reminds me of one of the things about the film that most annoyed me: its complete indifference about food. Granted, the earlier films never made a big deal about characters chowing down (and I don’t recall Diego taking a bite since the series began, though perhaps he has), but this time our heroes spend so much time stranded at sea that starvation and eating should be an issue. Yet the movie repeatedly shows us food at sea only when it’s floating away; in one scene Diego plucks out a fish stuck in his ear and throws it away. Then, when they actually make it to an island, Sid tries to eat a berry — at which Manny snaps, "Snacktime’s over!" Really?
The one thing that can be said for Continental Drift is that in place of the raunchy humor of its predecessor this one has a running theme of mildly positive pro-family sentiments. Manny and Peaches initially butt heads over her teenaged waywardness and his embarrassing her in front of her frineds (you just knew Manny was going to fret about Peaches growing up, didn’t you?), but the literal tectonic shifts in their neighborhood overshadow the figurative ones in their family.
Then Peaches is crying out for her father, and Ellie is reassuring her that Manny is “the toughest, most stubborn mammoth I’ve ever met. He’ll come back to us.” Along the way, Peaches learns Important lessons about peer pressure and the importance of being who you are, being proud of your family and sticking up for your friends, such as her little admirer Louis. (At first I thought everyone was calling Louis a “Mohawk,” which made no sense. Turns out, they’re calling him a “molehog,” a portmanteau of mole and hedgehog.)
Yet, in the end, as my Reel Faith co-host David DiCerto pointed out, the reunion of father and daughter comes with no gesture of reconciliation from the daughter — only new concessions from the father. Imagine Finding Nemo without Nemo taking back his angry “I hate you,” or Brave without Merida’s crucial, climactic words to her mother. Is it only in Pixar movies that kids have anything to be sorry for to their parents?
P.S. It’s a mark of Pixar’s influence on the whole industry that Ice Age: Continental Drift is preceded by a clever animated short with no dialogue: “The Longest Daycare,” starring little Maggie from The Simpsons. In under five minutes, it offers more wit and invention than the whole movie that follows it.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.
Content Advisory: Mild rude humor; animated violence/menace and scenes of peril, including parental separation. Okay family viewing.