By any logic, the prehistoric creatures of the ICE AGE franchise should be extinct by now, or at the very least have migrated to the direct-to-video market, like their colleagues over at THE LAND BEFORE TIME had the grace to do. But no, here we are with ICE AGE: CONTINENTAL DRIFT, the 3D, CG-animated film in which we rejoin family mammoth Manny (voice by Ray Romano), irascible saber-tooth tiger Diego (Denis Leary), and wacky sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) as they deal with the break-up of Pangaea, an iceberg full of animal pirates and, for some reason, a teen mammoth (Keke Palmer) who just wants to belong to the cool gang (never mind the shifting of land masses that WILL VERY LIKELY KILL HER).
Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons went to see all the animal hijinks and weigh in on how the fourth installment of the ICE AGE franchise fares, whether the filmmakers are at all invested in these films at this point, and where the hell did all the humans go? Then, Steve takes a look at the genre elements in Woody Allen’s latest, TO ROME WITH LOVE, and Dan gives his thoughts on the paranormal thriller RED LIGHTS. Plus, what’s coming to theaters next week.
The ICE AGE films represent 20th Century Fox’s attempt to cash in on the lucrative computer-animated family fantasy film market. As such, they are reasonably successful in terms of box office, if occasionally problematic in terms of storytelling, relying on CGI sight gags and the voice cast to pull the movies over any narrative humps.
ICE AGE tells the story of an unlikely “herd” — a group of mismatched animals that band together and bond for the common good. The simple story runs a predictable course (even the savage saber-toothed tiger has a change of heart and turns into a good guy by the conclusion), but the film feels stitched together from separate bits and pieces (no surprise when you consider the number of writers who worked on the project).
In fact, the film feels as if it was made by people who excelled at short subjects but did not have a grasp of quite how to tell a feature-length story. Sometimes, the scenes feel like isolated set pieces used to show off the computer imagery, which isn’t always as stunning as intended.
Fortunately, the characters are reasonably endearing, and the gags are funny. For brief moments, the film even works up some real feeling, as when the film’s mammoth, Manny (Roy Romano), who is perhaps the last of his species, contemplates some glyphs that remind him of the death of his family at the hands of human hunters.
Not surprisingly, the highlight of the film turns out to be the character least integral to the “plot” — that is, Scrat, the inarticulate squirrel rat (whose grunts are vocalized by co-director Chris Wedge). After accidentally precipitating the titular ice age, the creature’s apparently eternal quest for a beloved chestnut, which is intercut throughout the movie, plays like a series of classic cartoon short subjects, the brief interludes generating as much laughter as the entire remainder of the film.
ICE AGE: THE MELTDOWN is a considerable improvement over its predecessor. With the back story already established, and the herd of characters firmly in place, the script is unburdened with the baggage that weighed down ICE AGE and free to launch into a new story. As the title suggests, the problem is prehistoric global warming which threatens to flood that land when the ice melts. The story thus becomes a trek to safety — a safe linear narrative line that allows for the introduction of new characters and the occasional jaunt down some tangent for the sake of a good joke.
This time, Manny meets a female mammoth (voiced by Queen Latifah), who thinks she is a possum. A pair of water-dwelling predators replace Diego the saber-tooth as the continuing threat (one of these has a head that suspiciously resembles the pet crocodiles from Disney’s THE RESCUERS). And Sid the lisping sloth meets up with some others who worship him as a god — before trying to sacrifice him into a volcano!
Less episodic than ICE AGE, the sequel moves along more smoothly, and the new characters fit in well, including a rude pair of real possums who manage to shift from annoying to endearing without any hokey sentiment.
As before, the formula includes lots of anachronistic jokes (i.e., giving us an ice-age version of sights and sounds familiar to 21st century viewers), and there is an over-reliance on slapstick: the main storyline works best when the humor is verbal and character-oriented; the cartoony physical comedy should be reserved for Scat’s sequences.
The CGI is variable. Some scenes and backgrounds are astounding; at other times a flatness creeps in, betraying the computer origins. The animation sometimes comes up short when the characters are expected to emote — Diego, in particular, seems stiff and robotic whenever he’s not leaping or running. Fortunately, this is balanced by some good action. The predator attacks have nice JAWS-y feel to them, and there is wonderful underwater sequence near the end, with Manny trying to free his trapped girlfriend and fend off carnivorous attackers.
As before, Scat (again voiced by Chris Wedge, who this time did not direct) steals the show. Not only does he again precipitate the problem afflicting the rest of the cast (his quest for the acorn causes the first leak in the melting ice flow), he also undergoes a near-death experience that leads to his version of heaven, which (you guessed it) is filled with nuts. His quest — and his ingenuity and perseverance in the face of so many obstacles — is the stuff of great screen comedy, and it’s nice to see it sandwiched smoothly into the film as a whole. But one also wishes that the filmmakers would give the character more of a chance to stand on his own. He probably could not carry a feature film on his scrawny shoulders, but his scenes her prove once again that he could sustain a series of short subjects (such as the one that preceded 2004’s ROBOTS). ICE AGE(2002). Directed by Chiris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha. Written by Michael Berg and Michale J. Wilson and Peter Ackerman, from a story by Wilson; additional story by James Bresnahan, Galen T. Chu, Doug Compton, Xeth Feinberg; Jeff Siergey, Mike Thurmeier. Voices: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Goran Fisnjic, Jack Black, Cedric the Entertainer, Stephen Root ICE AGE: THE MELTDOWN(2006). Directed by Carlos Saldanha. Written by Peter Gaulke and Gerry Swallow. Voices: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Seann William Scott, Josh Peck, Queen Latifah, Will Arnett, Jay Leno
The latest adventure of Scrat – the tenacious, frantic, and endearing prehistoric squirrel-rat creature – hit the big screen this weekend, and the beloved animated character delivered even more laughs than usual. As we all know, Scrat’s raison d’etre– his white whale, his holy grail – is the pursuit of an acorn, which he follows with the single-minded intensity (if none of the dignity) of Captain Ahab. It’s a simple, fundamental character point that yields apparently limitless comedy, as his quest is interrupted by one obstacle after another, usually leading to frustration and disaster. Fortunately, the makers of ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS have not relied simply on reusing the old formula; they have expanded it in two ways: first by presenting Scrat’s antics in 3-D, second by introducing Scrat’s female counterpart, who bounces between being a love interest and a competitor for the sought-for acorn.
The results are imaginative and funny – some of the best visual comedy since the glory days of Warner Brothers cartoon short subjects, and Scrat certainly proves he deserves to take his place beside such fondly remembered cartoon icons as Bugs Bunny, the Road Runner, and (most particularly) Wile E. Coyote. In fact, the opening sequence of ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS is a virtual self-contained short subject that could have competed head-to-head with the craziest adventures ever animated by Chuck Jones or Tex Avery.
Unfortunately, the days of theatrical short subjects are over, and as much fun as Scrat is, a non-speaking character intent on pursuing a nut is not enough to fill out a feature film; consequently, Scrat’s antics have to be embedded into a film filled with other characters. They do their job, in a competent, middle of the road kind of way; the vocal performances provide distinct personalities, but the dialogue is only mildly amusing, and the computer-animated character designs are clunky.
None of the ICE AGE movies have been particularly brilliant; they look like the work of animators struggling to expand from short subjects to features, desperate to find a story that will stretch to 90 minutes. These stories – simple odes to putting aside your differences and banding together – are the kind of thing that makes overly concerned parents feel safe about taking their kids to the movies, but the narratives are really just a way of filling up space in between the excellently executed Scrat sequences.
Fortunately, ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS has one big advantage over its predecessors: it has dinosaurs. This alone is virtually enough to make DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS the best ICE AGE movie yet. Sure, the returning characters have their problems to sort out (Manny the Mammoth is over-protective of his pregnant mate; Sid the Sloth feels abandoned; Diego the sabre-tooth tiger is feeling old), but none of this really matters. The new storyline is just an excuse to squeeze a third film out of the franchise by introducing the rampaging reptiles into the mix, and that is more than enough to justify the effort.
Of course the title is off the mark. Our main characters live long after the extinction (let alone the dawn) of the dinosaurs, but the script gets around this by introducing a lost world hidden beneath an ice flow where the giant reptitles live on. The plot, such as it is, has Sid the Sloth adopt some eggs, which hatch some hungry meat-eaters; his best efforts to interest them in vegetables fail, especially when Mommy Dinosaurs shows up to provide a more palatable lunchtime offering for her brood (a mildly grizzly moment that deserves some measure of respect, as it violates the cuteness of the cartoon concept of baby dinosaurs).
When Mommy Dino drags Sid and her brood back to dino-world, Sid’s friends band together to rescue him. Along the way, they run into a new character, Buck, who possesses the survival skills necessary for the trip through dangerous territory – and he’s also nutty. In case that’s not enough plot to hold your attention, Buck has a personal vendetta against Rudy – a predatory reptitle so huge and fearsome that even Mommy Dinosaur cringes in fear at the sound of his footsteps.
The dinosaur designs are pretty good, even beautiful at times, and the new creatures provide plenty of opportunity for exciting action. The animation even features some nice character touches, as when Rudy recognizes Buck (who knocked his front tooth out) and licks at the gap where his tooth used to be. The 3-D photography looks sharp and detailed, with lots of depth, but objects seldom seem to be emerging from the screen, even when the framing indicates they were supposed to. Simon Pegg may gild the lily as Buck: the character is a bit too over-the-top already, but the resolution of his story is unexpectedly sophisticated, suggesting that simply destroying one’s personal bete noir is not the best way to go.
This may not sound like much, but it’s enough. If the only way we can get a good Scrat short subject every few years is to have an 87-minute film mostly about some other characters, then ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS adequately fills the bill. And it’s a lot less painful than sitting through another MADAGASCAR movie just to see commando penguins.
ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS (2009). Directed by Carlos Saldanha; co-directed by Mike Thurmeier. Written by Michael Berg, Peter Ackerman, Mike Reiss, Yori Brenner. Voices: Ray Romano, Denis Leary, John Legizamo, Queen Latifah, Simon Pegg, Chris Wedge as Scrat.
10,000 B.C.,which opens this week, is only the latest in a line of films that stretches all the way back to ONE MILLIONS YEARS, B.C. – and beyond. Hollywood has long had a fascination for portraying primitive life as it might have been lived before the invention of modern technology, but more often than not these films are outright fantasies with at best a passing interest in scientific accuracy. Most notably, the desire to see cave men confronting dinosaurs is usually too much to resist – even though the last dinosaur died out over 50-million years before the first primitive men were born.
The appeal of glamour is also not to be discounted: depictions of life before the invention of the toothbrush seldom show neanderthal men and women walking around with rotting teeth in their mouths, and you can bet that, despite their loin clothes and fur bikinis, early examples of homo erectus inevitably have perfect skin and well coiffed hair; look closely and you may even note a trace of eye liner on the leading ladies. And when you stop and think about it, can you really blame Hollywood? After all, remove the dinosaurs and the babes in clam-shell bikinis, and all you’re left with is a bunch of hairy ape-men grunting around the fire for 90 minutes – and who wants to watch that? To be fair, there are one or two worthy exceptions to this rule, which you will find as we take you on a tour of prehistory…
THREE AGES (1923). Silent comedian Buster Keaton’s first feature film steals the structure of D.W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE, telling three stories set in three different eras. In each of them, Keaton stars as the put-upon hero who must win the love of a woman against all odds. One sequence, set in prehistoric times, has Keaton competing with a bigger, stronger caveman rival for the lady’s affections. There is also an amusing, if crude, early special effects shot that depicts the character riding on the head of a brontosaurus. The story goes that Keaton chose the episodic structure so that, if the feature film failed, it could be cut into three short subjects. He needn’t have worried. THREE AGES is a gem of silent comedy, still worth seeing today.
ONE MILLION B.C.(1940). The first major trip down memory lane to the distant, distant past establishes many of the conventions that would persist throughout these films for decades to come; most notably, we see that cave men looked pretty much like their modern counterparts. However, ONE MILLION B.C. does something that its descendants did not bother to do: it accounts for the modern appearance by framing the story with a modern day prologue, in which an archaeologist interprets some cave drawings for the benefit of a young couple (Victor Mature and Carol Landis); not knowing what the characters in his story really looked like, he suggests that his audience imagines themselves in the roles. Their prehistoric adventures involve lizards and baby alligators optically magnified to suggest battling dinosaurs – a rather immoral bit of animal cruelty censored when the film screened in Britain (nevertheless, the sequenced was recycled as stock footage in several subsequent low-budget movies). Lon Chaney, Jr. also appears, as the leader of a cave man tribe. Ironically, considering that Keaton’s THREE AGES was a spoof of INTOLERANCE, producer-director D.W. Griffith had a hand in this production, although he eventually stepped aside and had his name removed from the credits.
PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1953). An obscure, low-budget entry, apparently filmed in the “wilds” of El Monte, about some stone-age women who decide they hate men but must keep a few around for procreational purposes. One of the men discovers fire, which he uses to defeat some prehistoric beast, proving that men really should be the ones running the show. 4 million years of male patriarchy, sexism, and spousal abuse follow.
TEENAGE CAVEMAN(1958). A young – but clearly not teen-aged – Robert Vaughn stars in the title role of this tale of primitive life. Despite his animal fur clothing, Vaughn sports a very modern haircut, but the surprise ending sort accounts for that. We don’t want to spoil it for you, but once you’ve seen the ending, you realize that this film doesn’t really belong in a list of “prehistoric” movies.
ONE MILLION YEARS, B.C.(1966). This remake of ONE MILLION B.C. is probably the apex of achievement for this kind of film, thanks to the unique convergence of two profoundly entertaining fantasy elements: Raquel Welch in a fur bikini and stop-motion dinosaurs animated by Ray Harryhausen. For young boys around the world, both seemed equally fascinating and unattainable, yet here were their dreams, displayed on the movie screens bigger than life. Suddenly, the unreal became real, at least for an hour-and-a-half. The anthropology here is rather ridiculous: Raquel hails for an advanced tribe of blond-haired, blue-eyed people, who have developed something resembling a culture (not to mention skin and hair care products, judging from their good looks). She hooks up with John Richardson, whose tribe of dark-haired swarthy types are obviously several rungs down the evolutionary ladder. As absurd as it it, it hardly matter, not when you can count on one of Harryhausen’s dinosaurs to intrude at regular intervals, rather like a string of vaudeville entertainers, each of whom gets a few minutes on stage before being ushered off to make room for the next. Highlights include the archetypal battle between a peaceful plant-eager and a ferocious carnivore (guess who wins?), Raquel being kidnapped by a pteranodon, and a fight between cave men and a young allosaurus who invades their village.
WHEN WOMEN HAD TAILS (1970). This Italian film (co-written by the respected Lina Wertmuller) is apparently a sex comedy spoof of prehistoric movies. Beautiful Senta Berger stars as a cave woman who meets some orphaned cave brothers who have been living alone on an island without women all their lives. She falls for one and introduces him to the joys of sex, but when the other brothers start wondering what the couple are doing together in private, trouble starts brewing.
WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH(1970). This follow-up to ONE MILLION YEARS, B.C. substitutes Victoria Vetri for Raquel Welch and Jim Danforth for Ray Harryhausen. Both are quite good, but neither can quite live up to the impact of their predecessors. The results are much the same as before, with another class between an advanced, blond-haired tribe and a retro bunch of dark-haired troglodytes. Aclaimed science fiction author J.G. Ballard, who wrote the original treatment, later said, “I’m very proud that my first screen credit was for what is, without doubt, the worst film ever made.” (Apparently, Ballard never saw PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE.) Whatever the short-comings, Vetri (former Playboy Playmate of the Year) looks great, and her interaction with mommy dinosaur and its baby is loads of highly improbably fun: she takes shelter inside and egg shell and ends up adopted into the family!
CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT(1971). Hammer films, the company behind ONE MILLION YEARS, B.C. and WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH, tries one more time with this flick, but they forgot one thing: the dinosaurs! All you get is a snake. Oh well, Julie Ege make a pretty cave girl, but she is not striking enough to pose a threat to Welch or Vetri.
QUEST FOR FIRE (1981). A rare attempt to portray a scientifically accurate view of primitive mankind, this film avoids the obvious mistakes (such as dinosaurs co-existing with humans), but the science is still a bit off (the screenplay was based on an outdated book). The story has a tribe losing its sacred flame when it is attacked by a rival group of savages. A trio heads out to recapture the fire. Along the way they encounter a more advanced tribe that has actually learned the secret of making fire (as opposed to just preserving a flame that started naturally). Reduced to its bare bones, the plot is not that different from ONE MLLION YEARS, B.C., but the grungy production values make it all seem much more believable.
CAVEMAN(1981). The lovable Ringo Starr plays the title role in this spoof of prehistoric movies, featuring comic stop-motion dinosaur effects by Dave Allen. The jokes are not great, but the whole thing is so light-hearted and good-natured that it hardly matters. Despite the comic tone, the special effects are very impressive – as technically polished as anything in a serious movie. The highlight has to be the T-Rex; played for laughs here, the predator is decidedly not fearsome, especially when he gets stoned on a mouthful of berries from a very special bush.
CAVEGIRL (1985). A low-budget spoof in which a high school nerd on a field trip finds himself transported back in time, where he falls in love with the titular character.
CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR(1986). Adapted by John Sayles from a book by Jean M. Auel, this film is another attempt, a la QUEST FOR FIRE, to take a serious approach to the depiction of prehistoric life. Still, with Daryl Hannah in the lead, the film’s depiction of its primitive leading lady is inevitably more beautiful than the real thing.
THE FLINTSTONES (1994). The long-running TV cartoon becomes a live-action feature film. The joke here, as on television, is that everything in the past exactly parallels the present, just with stones, rocks, and dinosaurs in place of electricity, hydraulics, and pets. Followed by a less successful sequel, VIVA ROCK VEGAS in 2000.
DINOSAUR VALLEY GIRLS (1996). An ultra-low-budget comedy about a modern man who gets sucked into the past where he helps out a tribe of women in fur bikinis. There are a handful of special effects shots, including some crude stop-motion and some magnified lizards, but mostly the film tries to sustain itself on the running joke that these women are the prehistoric equivalent of Valley Girls (as immortalized in the song by Frank Zappa). The big joke is that their crude grunting language includes syllables that sound suspiciously similar to “For sure.”
ICE AGE (2002). This computer-animated comedy about life in the titular ice age focuses on an unlikely team of wild animals (mammoth, sabre-toothed tiger, etc). It’s all good fun (especially Scrat, the squirrel-rat forever chasing down an acorn), and in a way it’s no more impossible than DINOSAUR VALLEY GIRL. If anything, the glimpse we get of early humans – a nomadic tribe of hunters – is probably more accurate. Followed by ICE AGE: THE MELTDOWN in 2006.