Cool as Ice

17 Feb 2015 | 02:20

    Ice Age: The Meltdown

    Directed by Carlos Saldanha

    Going into Ice Age: The Meltdown, I expected a light, amusing sequel to a pretty good kids' movie. I did not expect a feature that can stand toe-to-toe with the best of early Pixar. Directed by Carlos Saldanha, who split directorial credit on the first Ice Age, this is an unabashed example of mainstream commercial entertainment. But close scrutiny reveals an elaborate superstructure of visual motifs and verbal running gags, all anchored to surprisingly weighty themes. This is not just a decent sequel, it's a cartoon animal comedy about fear of annihilation; in essence, War of the Worlds for kids. The returning principals include the stubborn and depressed mammoth named Manny (Ray Romano), the dimwitted but goodhearted sloth named Sid (John Leguizamo) and Diego (Denis Leary), the hardcase saber-toothed tiger who's basically James Coburn with fangs. The trio has taken up residence in an interspecies community located in a promised land, a green valley nestled in a bowl-shaped glacier. Unfor-tunately, the ice walls that surround the valley are melting, so our heroes join the other animals as they leave the valley in search of fabled high ground-a prehistoric Mt. Ararat topped by a makeshift ark.

    Saldanha, screenwriter Jon Vitti and an army of animators deliver the superficial elements we expect from blockbuster kid flicks: chain-reaction slapstick, deliberately anachronistic one-liners (including pop culture references that will require footnotes in about 10 years) and a fair amount of heart.

    But these surface pleasures are tied to solid themes. The microcosmic animal community stands for a civilization that's on the brink of apocalypse and knows it. A hustling armadillo named Fast Tony (Jay Leno) tries to profit by stoking the other animals' anxieties, then selling them goods that will solve their problems. A flock of vultures follows the herd, narrating its progress like anchormen covering a refugee exodus on live TV.

    These dire circumstances force the Ice Age creatures to ponder who they are and what they're capable of. Diego the tiger, who presents himself as unflappable, is terrified by water because he can't swim-a bad fear to have when a flood is imminent. "We're living in a melting world, buddy," Sid tells Diego. "You're gonna have to face your fears." Brave, combative Manny has to wonder if cowardly Sid is right when he says it's smarter to flee than fight. Even the nut-crazy rodent Scrat is ultimately forced to ask which he wants more: his life, or the acorn he's been chasing for two frickin' movies. (In other words, what's more important, to win or to live?)

    On top of all this, Manny meets and courts a sole surviving female mammoth, Ellie (Queen Latifah), who was orphaned as a calf and raised among possums and now identifies herself as a possum, too. (At night, she hangs by her tail from a tree branch.) Ellie resists Manny's pleas to reject her possum identity and come home to mammoth-hood. She also resents Manny's inability to let go of his dead wife's memory and approach her as a soul mate rather than a means to replenish the species.

    The slippery goofball, Sid, emerges as the film's most emblematic character. Because he's all about survival, he treats every rule, tradition or bit of received wisdom as negotiable. "If you let this chance go," Sid says, "you're letting your whole species go, and that's just selfish." Informed that Ellie can't be both a mammoth and a possum, he replies, "Au contraire, my friend. Tell that to the bullfrog, the chicken hawk or the turtle dove." Sorry, Charlie Kaufman: this is the film that should have been called Adaptation.

    Ice Age sets these sentiments against a poetically apt backdrop, a crystalline ice world that's melting before our eyes, submerging the land beneath the sea and unleashing long-frozen, razor-toothed aquatic dinosaurs to stalk our heroes through an increasingly fluid landscape. (A stunning overhead shot shows the mammals hopping from ice floe to ice floe while the dino-fish cruise menacingly beneath them; the image recalls that chillingly beautiful God's-eye-view from Close Encounters that shows a UFO's giant shadow passing over Dreyfuss' tiny truck.) The flood is the film's emotional crescendo, but its comic zenith comes in a mind-boggling denouement scored with Aram Khachaturian's Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia, which finds Scrat bounding through a cottony heaven filled with giant acorns.

    Are we morally obligated to replicate ourselves? Is identity determined by genetic history or conscious choice? Does the likelihood of extinction give us permission to behave unethically? Is inter-species dating okay? Ice Age: The Meltdown weaves these questions into large-scale action sequences, rabbit season/duck season comedy routines and a fair number of poop jokes. The end product is a slapstick epic of survival, pitched simultaneously to movie-literate grownups and kids who aren't out of diapers yet. Anybody who says good popular entertainment is extinct hasn't seen this movie. --