A surly squirrel named Surly and his best buddy, Buddy the mute rat, plan a heist to steal cashews, peanuts and almonds in “The Nut Job.” In other words, cleverness is in short supply in this animated feature. But at least it’s a 90-minute reprieve from hearing the kids sing “Let it Go” from “Frozen.”
Antiheroes are the protagonists du jour, and Surly (voiced by Will Arnett) has many of the familiar flaws. The selfish scurrier has no interest in helping the other creatures in Liberty Park, where he lives, even though he has a mind for schemes and his neighbors are going into starvation mode. After his plan to steal a nut cart goes awry and the park dwellers’ stockpile goes up in flames, Surly is banished and forced to live in the city. It’s a scary proposition, though Buddy tags along.
There the pair stumble onto, as Surly calls it, “the lost city of Nutlantis” or Maury’s Nut Shop. The store is a front for bank-robbing mobsters but is indeed filled with nuts, and Surly and Buddy begin plotting a raid. Meanwhile, Liberty Park’s resident do-gooder, a squirrel named Andie (Katherine Heigl), negotiates her way onto the break-in crew, although her ultimate goal is saving the park residents, while Surly, per usual, cares only about No. 1.
“The Nut Job” is set in the mid-20th century, and there are some mildly amusing reminders of the era, from mobsters who call women dames to a dame with the film-noirish name of Lana. Some of the action also harkens to another time, with sight gags and heavy use of pratfalls more reminiscent of “Tom and Jerry” cartoons than recent animated features. Sometimes the punch lines land and sometimes they don’t, but overall the result is pleasantly nostalgic. In fact, the most dated part of the movie is when the final credits roll to the tune of “Gangnam Style,” sung by an animated Psy.
That feeling of been-there-done-that is pervasive, with many of the jokes sounding like they were ripped off from other movies. When brainless park hero Grayson (Brendan Fraser) says his cologne is made of falcon tears, it sounds like a bit from “Anchorman,” only less amusing.
The brightest moments come courtesy of a pug named Precious (Maya Rudolph), who is at first a menace to Surly and Buddy but soon becomes their adorable accomplice.
Visually, “The Nut Job” is more successful. When Surly first moves to the city, we see the world from his vantage point, with each pounding foot looking like an object of destruction. And the moment the park’s food goes up in flames inside an oak tree looks spectacular and makes the 3-D worth it (but only momentarily).
Of all the flaws of “The Nut Job,” Surly’s grouchy attitude is one of the hardest to overcome. He’s not a very fun character to travel with, even when he evolves, predictably, into a kinder, gentler squirrel with an after-school-special-worthy lesson to share. There are never enough kid-friendly movies, it seems, so Surly and his plot will suffice. But when you compare “The Nut Job” to the growing list of children’s movies that also delight adults, it’s hard to go back to the way things were.
PG. At area theaters. Contains mild action and rude humor. 86 minutes.