There is something most definitely amiss when a four-and-a-half-minute short has more laughs, wit, sweetness and creativity than the feature-length main attraction that succeeds it. Such is the case with the utterly delightful "The Longest Daycare," which finds "The Simpsons" toddler Maggie attending the Ayn Rand School for Tots and trying to save a butterfly from the bug-smashing hands of a class nemesis. From the Raggedy Ayn Rand dolls on display to Maggie being placed in the "Nothing Special" corner after ranking with average intelligence, this brief little movie is a pure joy in the way that it manages to remain so amusing and heartwarming even as it pushes its own acerbic boundaries time and again. That is not the case with "Ice Age: Continental Drift," which flatly lumbers along after the short like some wicked joke Blue Sky Studios and 20th Century Fox have decided to play on their audience. For a series that wasn't particularly inspired to begin with and hasn't done anything to deviate from the tired formula, this fourth entry feels especially desperate. Directors Steve Martino (2008's "Horton Hears a Who!
") and Mike Thurmeier (2009's "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
") and their writers, Michael Berg and Jason Fuchs, manage one clever line in all 87 minutes, spoken by Sid the sloth (voiced by John Leguizamo): "We fought dinosaurs in the ice age. It didn't make sense, but it sure was exciting!" Copping to blatant historical inaccuracy at least exhibits a sense of humor. It's just too bad that said sense of humor is usually so far off the mark from what's legitimately funny.
Prehistoric squirrel Scrat (Chris Wedge, in a series of squeals and screams) has yet to give up on his tireless pursuit of an acorn to call his own, but this time his shenanigans cause a major seismic shift across the globe that separates Sid, wooly mammoth Manny (Ray Romano), and saber-toothed tiger Diego (Denis Leary) from their families on the mainland. Set adrift on a block of ice with Sid's daft Granny (Wanda Sykes) in tow, the three friends run afoul of a gang of pirates led by ape Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage) while Diego starts to fall for Gutt's second-in-command Shira (Jennifer Lopez). Meanwhile, back at home, Manny's rebellious teenage daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer) gets a lesson in the value of real friendship over popularity after shoving best pal, hedgehog Louis (Josh Gad), aside in exchange for the superficial "cool" crowd.
If 2002's "Ice Age
" (wow, those were quaint days) and 2006's "Ice Age: The Meltdown
" were mediocre if harmless, then 2009's "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
" and now "Ice Age: Continental Drift" are a shuffle and a step below that, total junk food for kids who deserve better and could probably find just that with most of the year's other animated releases. Not even Scrat, typically the comic highlight of these pictures with his sporadic Charlie Chaplinesque appearances, is a winning presence this time around, his only memorable sequence being the opening one that has shown before countless other films over the past year. As for the central plot proper, it plays like a redux of 2011's decidedly dreary "Happy Feet Two
," with the hero(es) being separated from their tribe after a land/ice shift occurs.
Watching "Ice Age: Continental Drift" only a few weeks after the sunnier, smarter "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted
" is a case study in the difference good writing can make. The former excelled beyond the expectations of its franchise with grand heapings of quick banter, excitement, colorfully rendered computer animation, and excellent characters (including a thoroughly impressive villainess). The latter is ruddy, dull, and so instantaneously forgettable that it wouldn't be a surprise to learn viewers are getting hammered upside the head upon exiting the theater. The dialogue clangs with dopiness, its jokes hitting the wall like a person accidentally running into a sheet of glass. The characters are a derivative lot, with Peter Dinklage (2010's "Death at a Funeral
") wasted as Captain Gutt and not even the usually winning Wanda Sykes (2007's "Evan Almighty
") getting much of worth to say as the senile Granny. The returning cast members, including Ray Romano (2004's "Welcome to Mooseport
"), John Leguizamo (2011's "Vanishing on 7th Street
"), Denis Leary (2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man
"), and Queen Latifah (2012's "Joyful Noise
"), sound like actors who have long grown tired of voicing these threadbare characters.
Don't bother placing bets on how everything turns out because it's a foregone conclusion blessed only because it's so close to the end credits. Still, there is something rather disconcerting about a child-targeted animated comedy that ends with the image of an adorable, well-meaning squirrel whose eyes are brimming with sadness and tears before suddenly unleashing a guttural cry of terror. Cut to the closing titles and a boisterous "We Are Family"-style ensemble sing-along. Say what? "Ice Age: Continental Drift" would like to think it shares moralistic lessons about the importance of family and friends (never mind that Sid's selfish family dumps Granny off with him and promptly flees, never to be seen again), but the film itself is deeply disingenuous and its very existence nothing more than a cash grab. The less said about the shoehorned lecture on a sort of piracy that has nothing to do with peg-legged seamen, the better. The most efficient way of warding off the piracy of "Ice Age: Continental Drift" would have been to cancel it full-stop in the planning stages.