The most famous squirrel in the Western canon is, of course, Rocket (Rocky) J., who, along with his trusty partner Bullwinkle J. Moose, kept the American flag flying high in the bitterly chilly winds of the Cold War.
Fifty years later, The Nut Job indicates that the dream of the Great Society is dead, and that it’s every squirrel for himself; as the film opens, the strangely purple-hued Surly (Will Arnett) is scheming to rob a chestnut vendor and keep the spoils for himself instead of sharing with the other famished furries in his immediate vicinity.
The conflict between the individual and the larger group is the most pertinent theme of The Nut Job, a possibly unprecedented co-production between Canada, the United States and South Korea that employs the latter nation’s most popular K-Pop export – the Gangnam-Styling Psy – to top off its soundtrack. This is surely a pandering gesture, but, in lieu of the lavish animation budgets and top-tier voice actors available to CGI comedies produced under the Pixar banner, it’s perfectly understandable; in a crowded commercial marketplace, you gotta have a gimmick.
There are stretches wherein the plucky, underdog vibe of The Nut Job makes it more likeable than the sum of its mismatched parts. The parallel plot lines about Surly’s attempt to infiltrate a dry-goods store that is in turn being used as the base of operations for a gang of wannabe bank robbers are awkwardly integrated, and parents may be a little miffed to see so many scenes in which the bad guys casually draw guns to deal with their vermin problems. And yet there’s something endearingly grave about Surly’s predicament. Exiled from his stomping grounds at the order of a despotic raccoon (Liam Neeson, chomping down on his dialogue like so many cashew nuts) he gives off a bristling, freelance-samurai sort of vibe (one of the best jokes is the one that introduces him warily gazing across the city skyline from an elevated perch, just like Batman).
Co-writer-director Peter Lepeniotis deserves credit for eliding the usual deluge of pop-culture references that have drowned so many post-Shrek family entertainment. It’s also nice that the voice actors, from such Hollywood hands as Brendan Fraser and Katherine Heigl to Canadian performers such as Sarah Gadon and Annick Obonsawin attempt to inhabit their characters instead of riffing off of their star personnas. Arnett, whose work on Arrested Development involved stylizing himself into a kind of live-action cartoon, gives Surly the gruff, harsh cadences of a 1970s-style antihero, and, if it’s a bit of a one-note performance, it does its part to ground a film that’s otherwise rather erratic.
Advances in computer animation over the past few years have been such that, oftentimes, genuinely superb design and staging gets taken for granted. It also means that it’s easier to spot a dud, and The Nut Job spends the majority of its time in the uncanny valley between photo-realism and stylization. Only a multilevel chase sequence involving Surly and some glowing-eyed street rats has any real kinetic excitement, and the supporting characters lack visual distinction (although Racoon’s stone-faced avian sidekick is pretty amusing).
As an independently produced alternative to studio behemoths, The Nut Job has a certain lo-fi charm, but it’s hardly a world-beater; with all due respect to Surly, Rocky J. Squirrel’s place in the pantheon would seem to be safe for another 50 years.