Ice Age



USA 2002 : Chris Wedge : 85 mins approx

Ice Age arrives on our screens just as three other computer-generated movies are scrapping it out for the first ever Animated Feature Oscar – there’s been surprisingly little comment about the fact that not a single ‘conventional’ cartoon is up for the award, thanks to the Academy’s baffling omission of Waking Life from their shortlist. If Ice Age is anything to go by, the 2002 nominees with also be pixel-dominated – it’s better than Monsters, Inc., which it quite closely resembles at times, without ever reaching the heights of Shrek. And while it’ll be disappointing if Ice Age is still the Oscar front-runner this time next year, it certainly sets an early benchmark for the rest to aim at.

Expectations for Ice Age have been high ever since the first showing of its fantastic teaser-trailer – a lengthy, self-contained sequence in which a proto-squirrel’s attempts to hide an acorn sets off, in proper chaos theory style, a chain reaction of catastrophic glacial events leading up to a terrific, witty punchline. Encouragingly – and, perhaps, unprecedentedly – the film itself starts with a full replay of the trailer, with only the slightest variation right at the very end. But it’s immediately apparent that the elements which made the trailer so refreshing and sharp – the lack of dialogue, music and sentiment, and, best of all, the zen simplicity of its freewheeling white-out geometry – aren’t going to be features of the rest of the movie.

Instead, we rapidly settle into a very familiar kind of cartoon-land story: talking animals with human names; heavyhanded incidental music; hit-and-miss anachronisms (‘tae kwon dodos’ etc) a sentimental presentation of families in general and babies in particular; and a central ‘odd couple’ comprising a big, lumbering oaf and his irrepressible motormouth sidekick – a gimmick best seen recently in The Emperor’s New Groove, and here comprising Manfred the mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano) and Sid, a remarkably energetic sloth (John Leguizamo). In their mission is to return a human baby to its tribe, they’re helped/hindered by a duplicitous sabre-tooth tiger named Diego (Denis Leary), who soon learns that the power of friendship is more important than the red-in-tooth-and-claw impulses of his own bloodthirsty species. Along the way, the quartet learn the values of inter-species co-operation as they survive one precarious incident after another.

All very well, except it’s been done a thousand times before, in both live action and cartoons. Where Ice Age comes into its own is in the dialogue-light sequences that recapture the wordless economy of the trailer/opening, especially a spectacular big-dipper ride through the glassy interior of a blue glacier (one of the surprisingly few moments to make full use of the icy snowscape). There’s another highlight when Manfred finds a cave painting that triggers painful memories of his past, and we see the rudimentary scrawls come to life – a startling bridge over 20,000 years of ‘moving pictures’.

Wisely, the film-makers generally abandon any pretense at realism, and one of Ice Age‘s joys is the mild stylisation applied to the faces of both the humans (who look like some kind of pre-Inca tribe) and the sabre-tooth tigers. Another is the way the acorn-critter keeps popping up to carry on the picture’s best running gag, right up to the nicely symmetrical finale that mirrors the start. The pacing, meanwhile, is so expert that the alleged 85-minute running time feels barely more than a lean hour. This is, for now at least, the great advantage of CGI – the high expense means the movies, unlike nearly all others these days, hardly ever overstay their welcome.

12th March, 2002
(seen same day, Warner Village Newcastle)

by Neil Young