Hollywood Grind: ICE AGE: CONTINENTAL DRIFT, Animation Demographics, and Family Fun
Ice Age: Continental Drift delivers clever and amusing, cheerful and playful family fun, just like the first three films in the series.
Blue Sky Studios, a subsidiary of Fox, made Ice Age as its first feature-length animated film. Released in 2002, it displayed a bright color palette, an abundance of knockabout slapstick, and a self-mocking tone, which served to distinguish it from the first four films produced by Pixar (Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc.) and the first five from Dreamworks Animation (adult-skewing flicks, such as The Prince of Egypt and Shrek).
Ice Age set a light tone, even as it touched on a subtle, somewhat darker theme for its lead character, Manny (voiced by Ray Romano), a cynical mammoth still grieving over the loss of his wife and son. Manny learns to love again thanks to the chirpy company of Sid (John Leguizamo), a sloth with a speech impediment, and Diego (Denis Leary), a menacing, though tender hearted, saber-toothed cat.
The sequels followed similar storylines, with an emphasis on the importance of family, whether natural or adopted. In Ice Age: The Meltdown four years later, the trio was joined by Ellie (Queen Latifah), a mammoth who thinks she is half-possum, and her "half-brother" possums Crash (Seann William Scott) and Eddie (Josh Peck). Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009) presented an adventure in 3D, with Ellie's pregnancy causing Manny conniptions. Throughout all the films, a squirrel named Scrat has pursued a love affair with an acorn, causing untold collateral damage; in the latest installment, the movie begins as Scrat journeys to the center of the earth in search of his true love.
Formed in 1987, Blue Sky Studios initially focused on visual effects and television commercials, drawing upon experience they had gained from working on computer-generated animation for the original Tron. Fox became a corporate parent in 1997, shortly after Blue Sky won an Academy Award for their short film Bunny.
The late 90s was a time of turmoil and upheaval for the animation business. Traditional hand-drawn, 2-D animation was falling out of favor. Fox Animation Studios, which was established in 1994, only lasted five years before Fox laid off most of the animators; the studio was shut down in 2000 after the release of Titan A.E..
Enter Blue Sky Studios, based in White Plains, New York (since transferred to Greenwich, Connecticut). Under the direction of company co-founder Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha, Ice Age, originally envisioned as a hand-drawn animated picture, became one of the new breed of CG animated films. Its box office success, coupled with its nomination for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, gave Fox a new lease on animated life.
In addition to the Ice Age sequels, Blue Sky has branched out to the wonky Robots, directed by Wedge, and the musically-inclined Rio, directed by Saldanha, as well as Horton Hears a Who!. Upcoming projects include next year's Epic, a fantasy-adventure comedy, and Rio 2.
Ice Age: Continental Drift picks up a number of years after the last one. Peaches (Keke Palmer), the daughter of Manny and Ellie, is firmly into her teen years, and showing a rebellious streak. Peaches is fixated on Ethan (Drake), a cute wooly mammoth who has his own fan club of teen mammoths.
The family is separated -- something about the continents drifting apart, you know, the usual thing -- with Manny, Diego, Sid, and Sid's grandmother (Wanda Sykes) stuck on an iceberg, pushed out to sea, and leaving behind Ellie and Peaches on dangerous ground as, you know, the continent breaks apart around them.
Manny's group soon encounters a gang of pirates led by Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), a giant ape, and including animals voiced by Jennifer Lopez, Nick Frost, Aziz Ansari, and Rebel Wilson. Manny and his friends must defeat the pirates and race back in time to reunite with Ellie, Peaches, and friends.
For young children, the eternal attraction of animals talking funny and pushing each other around and having, mostly, a good time, is enough to hold their interest. (At least it was at the advance screening I attended.) For adults, the chief pleasure is in hearing very good voice work from Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones), who gets to play a malevolent villain with a hint of laziness to his voice and thinking. John Leguizamo seems pushed along by the presence of Wanda Sykes as a comic foil, and their expert comic timing made me laugh more than the jokes probably deserved.
The mother/daughter interplay between Queen Latifah and Keke Palmer, who also recently teamed as mother and daughter in Joyful Noise, hit the right notes, with Palmer especially impressive in expressing anguished teen angst.
Like its predecessors, the newest installment does not dig as deeply as Pixar aims to do, nor is it as ambitious visually as the most recent films from Dreamworks Animation. (And, in general, the big-budget studio projects all play it safer than animation originating in other parts of the world.)
Yet Blue Sky Studios has established its own niche: modest, well-executed, and colorful tales that honor their primary desire to delight young children without troubling them unduly or insulting the intelligence of their parents. That's more than a business model; it's the result of creative choice.
Ice Age: Continental Drift opens in theaters through North America on Friday, July 13.