We get spoiled when franchises do well in their third, fourth and fifth outings. Though sequelitis has gripped Hollywood like never before, a surprising number of filmmakers seem to understand that they need to make an effort with their tentpole projects, no matter how many Roman numerals appear after the title. It wasn’t always that way. Time was, we couldn’t hope for more than the occasionally solid Part Two and by the time Part Three rolled around, the series was basically just wringing a final few dollars out of us before moving on to the next cash cow. Madagascar 3 showed us how things have changed. Now Ice Age: Continental Drift arrives to remind us that they’re more the same than ever.
Nothing exists here beyond the possibility of profit. This movie says nothing that the previous three films haven’t crushed flat with giant mammoth footprints. Instead it does what most films of this sort do: throw new characters randomly at the screen, find contrived ways to deliver the same basic message, and rely upon undemanding children to find it all vaguely acceptable. Granted, it looks good, but that’s par for the course these days. Without solid CG, you’re doomed from the start and doing right by the imagery can’t make up for a bad story.
Said story isn’t wretchedly awful. Just tired and clichéd and dependent upon the laziest sort of complications to keep us occupied. It begins, as always, with the prehistoric squirrel rat Scrat (and can I just say how cataclysmically over him I am?), whose continued search for that elusive nut triggers a global seismic upheaval. The earthquakes separate Manny the Mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano) from his family, though his friends Sid the Sloth (voiced by John Leguizamo) and Diego the Sabretooth (voiced by Denis Leary) tag along, as does Sid’s crotchety grandmother (voiced by Wanda Sykes). They’re left floating in the ocean on an iceberg, while Manny’s wife Ellie (voiced by Queen Latifah) and teenage daughter Peaches (voiced by Keke Palmer) try to stay ahead of an encroaching tectonic plate. The journey home is blocked by an evil gibbon pirate (voiced by Peter Dinklage) and his scurvy crew, along with some trite lessons about teenage conformity, the value of family and the respect due to the elderly.
The commonplace messages wouldn’t grate so much if Ice Age weren’t so perfunctory about delivering them. They tumble out in a wet heap, following the same tired pattern as every after-school special and third-rate children’s show for the last forty years. The more direct threats arrive seemingly out of the blue (a gibbon pirate? Really?) or else rehash ideas from earlier films (another love interest for someone?!). All the time, they struggle to find interesting gags out of concepts that felt old two movies ago. The sloth is silly, the tiger is grumpy, the mammoth is Ray Romano… yawn. The huge crowds of new characters jostling for our attention bring absolutely nothing, though Sykes has a few fun moments and Nick Frost scores a bullseye as one of the gibbon’s less-than-intelligent cohorts.
Those pleasures are few and far between, bolstered by the lovely images and congenial atmosphere but ultimately too thin to sustain even the slightest of premises. That doesn’t matter when there’s profit to be had, of course, and the sight of so many name performers lining up to score a quick buck is positively depressing. Ice Age: Continental Drift has positioned itself to cover family audiences in the wake of The Dark Knight. They deserve better than empty chatter and hollow platitudes. The film is bound to make a mint, like all of its predecessors. What’s so irritating is how little it does to merit such a bounty: a cheap imitation that works solely because audiences can’t be bothered to find anything better.