Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs – Animated Film Review

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009)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.

Scrat gets a wiff of dino-breath.
Scrat gets a wiff of dino-breath.

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.

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