'Ice Age' 2: A Tepid 'Meltdown'

Manny the woolly mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano) gets some news from Fast Tony (Jay Leno) in the well-animated but still-lifeless sequel.
Manny the woolly mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano) gets some news from Fast Tony (Jay Leno) in the well-animated but still-lifeless sequel. (20Th Century Fox Via Associated Press)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 31, 2006

The most endearing character in "Ice Age: The Meltdown" is Scrat's acorn. Okay, it -- he? -- has no lines, no personality, no cute cuddly face, and doesn't sing or dance. But, commendably, this little critter fights like hell to stay out of Scrat's maw. It's not about to give anything up for Scrat, who appears to be some kind of saber-toothed squirrel, and it doesn't care that Scrat is represented by ICM, drives a super-yellow Hummer and has been seen dating Mischa Barton. And the more Scrat struggles to consume, much less capture, the little devil-nut, the more Mr. Acorn manages to bound away in this direction or that, while all around the world seems to be ending.

Really, the mime struggle between Scrat and nut is far and away the most amusing few minutes in "Ice Age: The Meltdown." It recalls a grand tradition in movies: from the brilliant Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons of Chuck Jones to the silent maestros Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Harold Lloyd. It demonstrates how much joy and communication can be found in pure movement as Scrat, driven ever further by desperation, twists into balletic dislocations of time, space and gravity to snare Mr. Acorn, but the little nugget of protein seems always to find an avenue of escape. I say: Go, nut, go!

Alas, the rest of the time, nothing nearly as interesting transpires. One can be grateful that despite the ominous "Meltdown" behind the colon, the sequel to 2002's "Ice Age" doesn't turn into an anti-global warming screed and there are no cartoon exaggerations of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as ignorant Neanderthals batted around.

Rather, the film stays largely with the odd selection of creatures that dominated the 2002 hit -- a sloth named Sid (the voice of John Leguizamo), a mammoth named Manny (Ray Romano) and a saber-toothed tiger named Diego (Denis Leary). A romantic interest is added with Ellie, another mammoth (Queen Latifah). Notice a pattern?

Well, the linguistic conceit of the film is that the Ice Age vocal patterns reflect the harsh yammer of the New York streets. Are we in the Pleistocene or on 42nd and Broadway in the '30s? Who's writing this, Damon Runyon? (Leary, the outsider as a Bostonian, hardly registers.)

Those of you who don't find New York City's rhythms soothing are strictly out of luck. Although Romano is by nature a slow, adenoidal talker, the piece is driven forward mainly by Leguizamo's yappy sloth, who's given so many lines he becomes tiresome.

The plot -- perhaps "plot-like arrangement of discrete, arbitrary events" would be more accurate -- follows as the happy creatures of some kind of utopian bestiary smell the coffee one warm day and realize that the snow's getting softer, the days longer, the sun hotter. Is this "spring" or "the end of the world?" Concluding it's the latter, they begin a migration toward the end of the valley, where a huge felled tree will serve as a kind of Ark substitute and let them ride out the ensuing flood. The movie consciously repeats heavily faith-based imagery of animals, two by two, queuing up to get aboard, but as a modern document, it has absolutely no interest in suggestions of a supreme being. According to its cosmology, the only supreme being is the mammoth, because he's so big!

Mild adventures occur during the trek: Two underwater lizards from another age, sprung from the ice just like "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" in the Jurassic of the '50s, ride the newly amplified riverine system in an attempt to snap up an hors d'oeuvre or two. These coldblooded beasties didn't get the memo that universal peace on Earth had broken out.

Another thing that seems on the verge of breaking out is a musical. Now and then, but without any consistency, the film conjures up big production numbers. Maybe seeing vultures do a passable imitation of Busby Berkeley is worth your money; it's the best single sequence in the film. See the singin', dancin' vultures before they feast on carrion!

The animation is first-rate, particularly as the 20th Century Fox technicians have mastered the incredible difficulty of capturing the sheen of moving water, the undulations of light on a liquid surface, the atomization of a single droplet as it shears upward. Amazing.

But the story needs to catch up to the magic. Otherwise, what's the point?

Ice Age: The Meltdown (89 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for the intense innuendo of world's end.

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