While watching the new Ice Age movie – the latest from DreamWorks’s cartoon franchise about mammoths, sloths and other critters before the dawn of man – it’s hard not to think about extinction. For one thing, the prospect of end times is a macabre running gag, with prescient animals speculating about their own demise as the rocks and glaciers around them begin cracking up. “Doesn’t it weigh on you that the world may be ending?” asks one humourless hedgehog, before he’s popped on the nose. That’s pretty dark stuff for a movie created for small children, and the dramatic irony probably won’t play with adults either.
While it’s morbid to think about these fuzzy little guys being hit by an asteroid, the movie also underlines the fate of another quickly dying species: the Hollywood voice actor. An obvious trend in non-Pixar animated movies has been the replacement of anonymous, multifarious vocal talents with famous people. While characters in films like Beauty and the Beast were often created from whole cloth, the leads in Madagascar and The Lorax are little more than an extension of a celebrity’s brand.
Ice Age: Continental Drift may be the apex of this trend. It’s larded with small characters that seem to have been reverse-engineered to get more names on the poster. Do we really need Aziz Ansari from Parks and Recreation to pop up for a couple of lines as a prissy mouse? Or Jennifer Lopez in a listless performance as a sleek tiger? Or rappers Nicki Minaj and Drake in glorified cameos as teenaged woolly mammoths? (You know Drake’s character is a desirable young hotshot because his fur has been styled into a brush cut.)
Their presence is a symptom of too many summer sequels – tack on more famous people with each fresh instalment, and hope there are just enough newish things to keep people interested. The problem with this strategy is that more characters necessitate more subplot, which comes at the cost of pacing and coherence. Between monkey pirates, father-daughter drama and the tectonic shifts happening below, there isn’t much room for the new characters here, let alone the ones that have already been established. Why bring Queen Latifah’s empathetic tones back if you’re only going to give her expository dialogue?
The modest pleasures of the Ice Ages are usually bits lifted from other manic animations, primarily Looney Tunes. In the opening sequence of this movie, Scrat, the wordless weasely thing, chases his acorn to the top of a perilous cliff. Just when he thinks he’s finally snatched it, his nostrils flare as he hears a rumbling in the distance. Suddenly, the ground beneath him bisects like a chopped log and he dangles in the air in classic Wile E. Coyote fashion, only falling after he realizes that the ground has disappeared. Of course, this gag has been done a million times before, not only in other cartoons, but in the Ice Age series itself. But it’s a reliably silly laugh, and the type of thing you want more of in a movie that’s stuck with a very modern kind of bloat.