Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is not a good movie, but it is made by filmmakers with panache who have some good ideas along with a lot of bad ones, and in any case are giving it all they’ve got. Like its predecessor, Ice Age 2: The Meltdown, it may not really work, but at least it’s not lazy or phoned-in like, say, Shrek the Third or Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa.
What both Ice Age sequels lack is discipline, somewhat as a Jackson Pollock drip painting lacks composition, perspective and negative space. Both sequels play less like bona fide movies than like initial brainstorming sessions for an Ice Age sequel, with every proposal thrown into a hat and then all put on the screen, without the bother of selecting, editing and rewriting, of exercising restraint, of shaping the material into a coherent whole.
As a collection of parts, almost an anthology of ideas, Dawn of the Dinosaurs is fitfully entertaining. It’s probably better made than The Meltdown, with more workable plot ideas, fewer completely unintegrated sequences, better stuff to look at, and Blue Sky Studios’ best animation to date.
This time out, mammoths Manny (Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah) are having a baby, a major step forward from Ellie thinking she was an opossum in the last film for no good comic or narrative reason. Diego the sabretooth (Denis Leary) is worried that he’s lost his predator’s edge hanging around with herbivores — something so obvious the filmmakers should have thought of it last time instead of giving him some silly issue about fear of water. Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo), feeling left out of Manny and Ellie’s family togetherness, decides to hatch a clutch of dinosaur eggs he finds in an underground chamber that turns out to be connected to a subterranean lost world, which at least gives him something meaningful to do, and leads to some great set pieces in the lost world.
Alas, Dawn of the Dinosaurs also marks Blue Sky Studios’ descent into the kind of crude and suggestive humor they once left to DreamWorks. Take this exchange between Manny and Diego, huddled together in the maw of a giant carnivorous plant:
“I feel kind of tingly.”
“Don’t say that when you’re pressed up against me!”
“Not that kind of tingly!”
That’s just for starters. While crotch trauma humor is an unfortunate staple of family entertainment, Dawn of the Dinosaurs is the first family cartoon I’ve seen with so much overt verbal humor about male organs — gags ranging from basically harmless to downright nasty. On the harmless end, Sid the sloth exclaims “It’s a boy!” at the sight of a newborn, only to be told, “That’s a tail, Sid!” Then there’s a line from gonzo, swashbuckling weasel Buck (Simon Pegg of Star Trek), musing on the phrase “I’ve got your back”: “Why is it your back? Wouldn’t you rather they had your front? That’s where the good stuff is!”
On the nasty end, Buck brandishes a long knife while boasting about the time he used a sharp implement to “turn a T-Rex … into a T-Rachel.” But the low point may be a punchline shot of Sid shouting “I thought you were a female!” as he flees from an outraged yak he made the mistake of groping in pursuit of milk.
What makes this so disheartening is the departure it marks for Blue Sky Studios, whose previous work from Ice Age and Robots to Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! has been marked by a refreshing ingenuousness, a lack of jaded sophistication. In their earlier films, even the occasional double entendre, like when a robot father-to-be arrives home too late for the “delivery” of the new-baby kit, but still gets to help his wife “make the baby” (“That’s the fun part,” she coyly reminds him), was innocent and sweet rather than crass or tasteless.
That’s not to say if you looked hard enough you couldn’t find something inappropriate about Blue Sky’s earlier work. Even with Ice Age, grown-ups with their eyes open would realize that the two rhinocerotoids were meant to be gay. Yet to the pure all things are pure, and children would make no more of them than of Ernie and Bert on “Sesame Street.” (Anyway, those bullying rhinos weren’t exactly role models.)
More overt in this film, though equally over children’s heads, is throwaway reference about someone having known a butterfly as a caterpillar “before he came out.” A line like that won’t corrupt children, only annoy their parents — but why should parents subject themselves to such annoyance?
Even Scratt the sabre-squirrel’s slapstick segments don’t escape unscathed. The opening sequence, adding a foxy female squirrel named Scratte to form a sort of triangle with Scratt and his beloved acorn, is a worthy addition to Scratt’s oeuvre, as is a later tango sequence. But parents may wince for more reasons than one at a later moment when Scratte tears away the acorn, stuck fast to Scratt’s torso by sticky tar, ripping fur from Scratt’s chest and exposing the pink skin beneath — a gag that, as Peter Chattaway among others has noticed, looks like an homage to a scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin involving chest waxing. (Chattaway also notes that the yak-milking scene recalls an exceptionally offensive scene from Freddy Got Fingered. Not that kids will know this, but what the heck were they thinking?)
Last week a couple of researchers at the University of Michigan published a report warning of the dangers of — no joke — “heteronormativity” in family entertainment, like Disney cartoons in which the princess always winds up with the prince. Thankfully, cartoons like Ice Age do fit this general pattern (Manny belongs with Ellie, Scratt falls for Scratte, etc.), though there are still stabs at the notion of “other kinds of families.” Sid adopting and hatching the three dino eggs and repeatedly calling himself a “mommy” (and even “a single mother of three”) is in that vein — though Manny may speak more wisdom than the filmmakers intended when he points out that Sid that “taking someone else’s eggs” is no way to become a parent. Later, the real dino mother shows up, and for a while the dino triplets have two mommies — though the story does end on what the Michigan U researchers would probably find a regrettably traditional and biologistic note.
You can see the talent at work amid the muck. A slalom snowboarding sequence with Sid the sloth and a trio of dinosaur eggs has the same slapstick flair as Scratt’s segments. Dinosaur skeletons are inventively put to novel use as means of transportation, a conceit that is much cleverer than the lame tree-trunk ark from The Meltdown. The climactic act may be an overwrought mess, but it almost achieves a kind of screwball grandeur. All in all, though, Dawn of the Dinosaurs may be Blue Sky’s least appealing effort to date.
“We had a great run,” says Diego early in the film, “but now it’s time to move on.” That’s half true, anyway.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.