[Screen It]

(2014) (voices of Will Arnett, Katherine Heigl) (PG)

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Animated Comedy: A self-serving squirrel and other animals travel into the city in hopes of stealing nuts from a local store, unaware that it's serving as the front for mobsters desirous of robbing the bank across the street.
Having his assistant, Mole (voice of JEFF DUNHAM), check their supplies inside the trunk of a huge oak tree in Liberty Park, animal leader Raccoon (voice of LIAM NEESON) has determined that they don't have enough food to get through the winter. Accordingly, he orders two squirrels, rule follower Andie (voice of KATHERINE HEIGL) and the vain and heroic Grayson (voice of BRENDAN FRASER), to raid a human vendor's nut cart along the park's edge. But he also warns them to be wary of fellow squirrel Surly (voice of WILL ARNETT) who he states is only looking out for himself and doesn't have their best interests in mind.

Indeed, Surly and his non-speaking and somewhat dimwitted friend, Buddy (voice of ROBERT TINKLER), have already set their sights on the nut cart. But when an overeager pug, Precious (voice of MAYA RUDOLPH), only adds to the mix of confusion when Andie and Grayson also appear on the scene, things quickly escalate out of control. As a result, the grand oak tree repository is destroyed, Raccoon banishes Surly from the park forever, and the bitter squirrel heads into the somewhat scary big city.

There, however, he and Buddy accidentally discover a nut shop and believe they've found enough food for a lifetime. What they don't know is that a recently released mobster named King (voice of STEPHEN LANG) is using the shop as a front so that he and his small band of criminals, including Fingers (voice of JAMES RANKIN) who owns Precious, can secretly dig a tunnel under the street and over to the bank they intend to rob. Not only must Surly contend with them and their "guard dog," but also Raccoon who's learned of the shop and sent Andie, Grayson and groundhogs Jimmy (GABRIEL IGLESIAS) and Johnny (JOE PINGUE) to break into the place and get them food.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
All animals have to eat, be they carnivores, herbivores or omnivores. Aside from humans that mostly populate that latter category and can make gluttony seem like a quaint word in terms of how much they can shovel down their pie holes, the critters I most associate with frantic food gathering and preparation are squirrels. Sure, mice and rats are garbage can scavengers, but they're usually covert, while seagulls simply glide above beachgoers before making their quick strike and getaway.

Squirrels, on the other hand, are always in some sort of motion. Whether it's the jump-running, tail twitching or fast paw manipulation of whatever they're handling, they seem quite obsessed and nearly panicky about their food. That point was expressed quite well and fairly amusingly in all of the animated shorts and brief "Ice Age" movie interludes featuring Scrat the saber-toothed, prehistoric squirrel and his never-ending quest for the huge (to him) acorn that's always in reach but never quite his.

That obsessive trait apparently passed down through the squirrel generations over the eons as we now have a number of similarly compelled rodents likewise desirous of scoring some nuts in the appropriately titled "The Nut Job." Yet, while Scrat came from and mostly operated in the silent slapstick movie mode of the likes of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, the characters here are full-on vocal, a trait that manages to impart plot information and character motivation, but removes much of the charm that fueled those short appearances.

At a running time of just under 90 minutes, the film sports a script by writer/director Peter Lepeniotis and co-writer Lorne Cameron that's both complex and simple, but never really excels either way (and exists in time period limbo that sometimes seems like the 1920s or '30s but then concludes with an animated Psy performing "Gangnam Style" over the end credits).

There are a slew (and cross-section) of animals characters, along with a smaller number of human ones in plots that parallel and intersect each other. On the large side of the story we have Raccoon (voiced by Liam Neeson) who informs all of his subordinates that their winter food supply isn't going to be enough and thus orders two squirrels (Katherine Heigl voicing the capable rule follower and Brendan Fraser as the vain and showy hero character) to raid a human vendor's nut cart.

But they're told to watch out for the despised Surly (Will Arnett) and his dimwitted rat accomplice (voiced by Robert Tinkler at the very end, otherwise he's a silent movie holdover) who will likely try to undermine him. Staying behind is a near-sighted mole (Jeff Dunham), several husky groundhogs (Gabriel Iglesias and Joe Pingue) and an odd (and silent) red cardinal who seems ready to appear in an "Angry Birds" movie.

When the vending cart raid goes amiss, the animals' beloved and food repository oak tree goes up in flames and thus Surly is banished to the city where he just so happens to (literally) run into a nut store. Inside that are a bunch of mobsters (lead by a tough guy voiced by Stephen Lang) who are using that as a front -- with an unlikely guard dog in the form of a pug (Maya Rudolph) -- so that they can tunnel under the street to the nearby bank, unaware that the critters are simultaneously trying to break into the store for their own sort of raid.

That's a fair number of characters to juggle, but then again the likes of the "Ocean's Eleven" remake wasn't short of characters. Yet while the heist in that flick was fun to behold in terms of the somewhat complicated planning and execution, the two of them here are fairly blasť and nowhere as entertaining. That's not to say that younger kids won't be entertained, what with the fart jokes and slapstick style material where characters are thrust, thrown, tossed and otherwise smashed into or by various things.

Yet (and I hate always pulling the Pixar card), some animated films transcend the low-brow silliness and become art onto themselves, like "Ratatouille" (also featuring a hungry rodent as the protagonist), and appease adult just as much as kid viewers. While this one occasionally seems to attempt to tap into some old Looney Tunes material (with the gangsters) and looks gorgeous from an animation standpoint, I imagine most adults in tow will tolerate rather than glowingly endorse the material.

Of course, it doesn't help that the appropriately named main character indeed is surly and unlikable throughout most of the film, and Arnett doesn't do the character any favors with a similarly off-putting vocal performance. Other vocal work is okay but not terribly remarkable or memorable, although I imagine kids will find some favorites among the menagerie of critter characters.

What's present isn't horrible by any means, but I was just hoping for so much more considering the built-in potential of animal and human heist storylines paralleling and intersecting one another. And if that wasn't possible, at least the filmmakers could have taken more heed of what makes the Scrat shorts and cameo appearances so much more delightful to watch. "The Nut Job" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 11, 2014 / Posted January 17, 2014

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