Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs...not there yet

Being a part of the New York animation scene, I am biased to be pleased that there is a place like Blue Sky Studios nearby (previously located in White Plains, NY; now relocated to Greenwich, CT). But being pleased with a studio that makes animated feature films doesn't count for how I feel about their output. So far, I find each of Blue Sky's movies to be mindfully flawed in some way (or ways). Ice Age: The Dawn of the Dinosaurs, the third installment of Blue Sky's Ice Age movies, is just as flawed, but not enough to keep me from enjoying the movie.

The story of Ice Age 3 is probably my favorite so far in the Ice Age films. The "herd" is still together, and true to form, they can't live with each other or without each other. Wooly mammoth partners Manny (Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah) are expecting their first child, yet Ellie seems to be suffering the least of her extended family. After discovering three lone eggs in an underground cavern, Sid, the unhealthy yet optimistic sloth (John Leguizamo) decides to care for them. When they hatch into baby tyrannosaurus, their mother attacks above ground looking for them, and takes them (and unintentionally) Sid back into the cavern. The rest of herd rush into the cabin to find him, and happen upon an underground jungle populated by (thought to be) extinct creatures.

The story is pretty decent. The herd is portrayed from the start to be something of an extended family (something I enjoy seeing in stories). I love the action element to the story, but there are great moments of comedy interspersed throughout. My favorite scene has to be when the herd is trying to cross through a toxic cave, and when they breath in, the toxic gas causes them to go uncharacteristically happy and hysterical. The stories of the previous Ice Age films were okay, although I like the first one the least (the human characters were boring and unnecessary), and the second was only a mild improvement.

The best part of the movie is the overall look. Recently, I became a fan of illustrator and character-designer Peter De Sève, probably best known for his New Yorker magazine illustrations. The designs of the characters are wonderfully balanced between needing to be 3-dimensional, looking unique and distinctive, and wordlessly expressive. In fact, Mr. De Sève recently started up a blog, which includes some of his pre-production drawings for the movie. His designs of Manny, Diego, and Sid are very distinctive of one another, and all have traits that define their personalities (like Diego being very sharp looking with a few rounded edges, Manny all hidden away by tusks and fur, and Sid with tiny eyes and a carelessly round belly).

The designs of the rest of the "herd" are cute as well: Ellie is a lot softer looking than Manny, and I love the manic appearances of twin possums Crash and Eddie. The new character, Buck is my favorite new design, for the biased reason that I love weasel characters.

The wooly mammoth characters, Manny and Ellie, are impressively animated. Not only are they shown to be large and rotund, but their tusks and wool cover most of their faces. This leaves their eyes as the primary source of facial expression, which the animators do a fantastic job of accomplishing.

The biggest flaw of Ice Age 3 is the dialogue. I find most of the dialogue (if not all) to be predictable, which drives me crazy. I like being surprised by what a character says (especially in humorous situations). This is a flaw evident in all the Ice Age movies. I constantly find myself cringing at some of the dialogue, and I just want to pause the movie so I can correct the dialogue to myself. I was especially displeased with the character of Buck having an Australian accent, thus making the dialogue one big cliché after another. Maybe it would have helped if the accent didn't have so many references to Australian dialect (i.e. "You'll never find your mate,...MATE").

None of the voice acting helps the dialogue out. I personally don't like the celebrity casting Blue Sky places in its movies, although I can appreciate what it does for the reputation of the movies themselves. Ray Romano's portrayal of Manny in the first movie seemed a little too close to his comedy persona, but in Ice Age 2 and 3, his performance is much smoother and not as forced. John Leguizamo, of course, always impresses by keeping himself masked with a happy lisp when playing Sid the Sloth. The rest of the cast (Queen Latifah, Denis Leary, Simon Pegg, Seann William Scott, Josh Peck) isn't too impressive, and don't give the characters as much depth as their appearances offer.

The Scrat and Scratte subplot is at times very sweet, very funny, and a little creepy. As in the previous movies, Scrat, a "saber-toothed squirrel," is still obsessed with gathering acorns, except this time he meets his match in a female counterpart, Scratte. Throughout this story, Scratte managed to outsmart Scrat in getting a particular acorn, most of which end in pain for Scrat (the weirdest part being a scene that evokes the chest-waxing scene in The 40 Year-Old Virgin). Eventually the two fall in love, only for Scrat to be torn by between his love for her and his absurd acorn obsession.

Eventually her nit-picky attitude opens the door for him to pursue his acorn, which leads the two prehistoric squirrels back to their previous conflict. Long story short, he ends up losing both his precious acorn, and (quite possibly) his one true soul mate. Aside from the aforementioned chest-waxing, I quite enjoyed this little subplot. Not everyone wants to admit it, but the reason Scrat's little adventures are so enjoyable is the lack of dialogue, and total reliance on physical comedy, something harking back to the early days (or prehistoric in this case) of cinema.

What more can I say (if I haven't said enough). This is my favorite of the Ice Age films, but its not the best movie ever. I still mind the dialogue flaw very much. However, its still nice to see computer animation that's not overdone, and still has a simplified, yet stylized look. Still, my thoughts on Blue Sky movies remains unchanged.

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