[Screen It]

(2002) (voices of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo) (PG)

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Animated Comedy/Action: A disparate group of prehistoric animals form an unlikely alliance to return a human baby to its tribe at the onset of the Ice Age.
It's the beginning of the Ice Age in prehistoric times and herds of animals are migrating to avoid the oncoming and permanent wintry weather. That is, except for daffy Sid the Sloth (voice of JOHN LEGUIZAMO) who's overslept as usual and has been abandoned by his family.

After a bad run-in with two ill-tempered rhinos (voices of CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER & STEVEN ROOT), Sid flees for his life and then runs into Manfred the Mammoth (voice of RAY ROMANO) who's heading against the flow of traffic. Manfred's sheer size allows him to defeat the rhinos' attack and that makes Sid think he's found a new friend. Manny wants nothing to do with the little fellow, though, and makes no bones about that, but Sid won't let him be.

Meanwhile, a group of saber-toothed tigers -- Soto (voice of GORAN VISNJIC), the leader, and his followers, Diego (voice of DENIS LEARY) and two others (voices of DEIDRICH BADER & ALAN TUDYK) - are planning an attack on a tribe of humans they claim has killed half of their pack. Hungry for revenge and dinner, Soto orders Diego to seize a toddler and return it alive to him. The tiger attempts to do that, but the child's mother manages to escape, but without ultimately sacrificing her life.

The human child eventually lands in the possession of Manny and Sid, with the former wanting nothing to do with it until Diego's arrival and statement that he simply wants to return the baby to its tribe. Not trusting the tiger, Manny decides to return the toddler himself, but Diego warns that without his tracking abilities, the mammoth, sloth and the toddler might perish in the harsh environs.

From that point on, and as a saber-toothed squirrel, Scrat (sounds of CHRIS WEDGE), repeatedly comes across their path all while trying to protect and bury his precious acorn, the unlikely trio sets out to return the baby, with only Diego aware of what lies waiting for them at the end of their journey.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
While it's their job to get moviegoers into theater seats, trailers (movie previews) often give away too much of the story in the process, leaving viewers with the feeling that they've seen the entire film before it starts.

That's part of what is so appealing about the trailer for "Ice Age," 20th Century Fox's foray into the world of computer-animated features. In that preview, a little prehistoric squirrel (that is saber-toothed no less) is seen trying to bury an acorn and inadvertently causes all sorts of near calamitous events to transpire. As he frantically tries to retrieve the nut and same his own skin - in exaggerated cartoon form - he finds himself encountering a succession of perilous adventures that would fit in well with the beginning of an Indiana Jones or James Bond film.

It's both a brilliant piece of promotional advertising and a terrific animated short on its own. Thankfully, it also doesn't appear to give away much if anything of the main film to prospective viewers. In truth, it's most of the opening sequence of the film - only a few new bits of material are added to it - but unfortunately is the best the film has to offer as the rest of the picture pales in comparison to its sense of comedy-based mayhem.

Reportedly long in production, the film doesn't spare the adventure, as it's comprised of the standard, mismatched members road trip story with all of the usual, accompanying material. It does suffer, however, from the inevitable comparisons to last year's far superior "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc."

While all of them were probably in production at or around the same time, this one loses the "first across the finish line" derby, particularly in terms of both the story and quality of its animation. Since both of those other computer-animated films were runaway box office successes, most viewers will probably think parts of the story here - penned by Michael Berg, Michael Wilson and Peter Ackerman (all making their feature film debuts) -- are too much like similar elements in those other films.

Here, a large and solitary mammoth saves a smaller, chatterbox of a creature from others and then becomes increasingly irritated by his presence and nonstop yammering. The same basically occurred in "Shrek," but unfortunately neither the animated characters nor vocal performances of Ray Romano as the mammoth and John Leguizamo as the goofy sloth match Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and their respective characters in that film.

To make matters worse, the characters here then find themselves in possession of a human child - that they have little idea how to care for - and then try to return it to its home. Somewhat of the same, of course, occurred in "Monsters, Inc." One can't completely fault this film for others beating it to the punch, and kids, who obviously have a thing for repetition as they repeatedly watch the same viewers over and again, probably won't mind and may just like that familiarity. Yet, the fact that it's so similar to the others means it doesn't feel as novel, inventive or special.

It doesn't help that the script and accompanying dialogue in this film aren't as smart, clever or imaginative as in those other efforts, or that the basic plot - the two characters, accompanied by a seemingly untrustworthy saber-toothed tiger voiced by Denis Leary, trying to return that baby - isn't anything special. While there's enough action and funny lines to keep things interesting, little if anything of what occurs will surprise many viewers.

What most viewers will probably notice, however, is that the computer animation appears substandard at times to what those other films brought to the screen. It's amazing how spoiled we've become by what's possible nowadays, as the animation that's on display here would have wowed viewers a few years back.

To be fair, some of the work by Blue Sky Studios - that created the effects for director Chris Wedge's Oscar-winning, 1998 animated short film "Bunny" - does look good (especially regarding the aforementioned squirrel) and it's obviously not intended to be photo-realistic.

Even so, some of the characters are a bit less detailed and/or somewhat blocky looking (especially regarding the humans) compared to what we've recently seen, and that makes it appear as if the animators didn't have the budget and/or computer horsepower to compete with their rivals.

Regarding the all-important vocal performances, Ray Romano (TV's "Everybody Loves Raymond) provides that for the loner mammoth character. While his slow and dull vocal delivery might be aurally appropriate for the stereotypical, slow moving behemoth, it does rob the film of some energy. Conversely, while John Leguizamo ("Collateral Damage," "What's the Worst That Could Happen?") is playing a traditionally slow sloth, his delivery is much faster and the most entertaining of all the major players. Denis Leary ("Company Man," "The Thomas Crown Affair") rounds out the bunch as the double-faced saber-toothed tiger, but is mostly unremarkable in the part.

The most disappointing thing about the film, however, is the limited amount of time that the squirrel - named Scrat in the press notes - gets compared to the other characters, and he doesn't even speak (although Wedge provides some funny sounds for his efforts). The opening and closing sequences featuring the little fellow are fabulously entertaining. Yet, while he occasionally crosses paths with the major characters, he's not part of the main plot and there simply isn't enough of him in the film.

While kids will probably enjoy what's offered here and parents/adults might find it cute or amusing, the lack of an original and/or overly creative story and animation that isn't up to snuff with other recent animated fare means that this effort simply doesn't feel as fun or fresh as its recent competitors. Not bad, but certainly not as continuously fun as its trailer, "Ice Age" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed March 1, 2002 / Posted March 15, 2002

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