Anyone who doubts the truth of the bromide that January is the time studios trot out films that would otherwise be unreleasable should take a look at The Nut Job, a CG feature that has all the originality and individuality of a Dixie Cup.
Co-writer Lorne Cameron worked on DreamWorks' Over the Hedge (2006), so it's not surprising that the premise of the story recalls the earlier film. The animals in a park in the city of Oakton haven't gathered enough food in their storage tree to keep them going through winter. Sardonic rogue squirrel Surly (voice by Will Arnett) and his mute rat sidekick Buddy sort of cause an accident that burns the tree to the ground, exacerbating the crisis. Raccoon (Liam Neeson - who can't need money this badly) banishes Surly and sends Andie (Katherine Heigel), a practical, fussy squirrel, and posturing dimbulb Grayson (Brendan Fraser) to find more food.
All the squirrels end up trying to raid an apparently abandoned nut store that a gang of human criminals is using as a base of operations for a bank robbery. Numerous, predictable contretemps ensue before Grayson saves the day, defeating the manipulative Raccoon, winning Andie’s heart and providing more peanuts than everyone can eat. Didn’t see that coming?
Director Peter Lepeniotis made Surly Squirrel in 2005, and The Nut Job plays like an expanded version of that short, with bits and characters borrowed from other films. But the storytelling is simply inept: characters inexplicably appear, disappear and reappear. At one point, Grayson rides away on a street car while fighting a sewer rat on its roof. Later, he shows up at the nut store. How did he get there? How did he defeat the rat? Surly and one of the gangsters go over a dam in the climactic battle; Surly conveniently washes up on the bank of the stream in the park a few scenes later. The gangster isn't seen again.
The story unfolds in the fictional city of Oakton, yet many characters talk in unconvincing "Noo Yawk" accents. Although The Nut Job supposedly takes place in the 1950s, the human Lana is a peroxided-looking blonde out of a 40's B movie. Nothing in the story suggests the time period, and the dialogue is contemporary in tone, including a lot of the belch and fart jokes.
The squirrels look like a combination of the character in Lepeniotis' short, Wart in The Sword in the Stone and Hammy, the hyperactive squirrel in Over the Hedge. Buddy resemble a tacky copy of Remy in Ratatouille, and the borrowed poses only emphasize the resemblance. Raccoon's mute cardinal-sidekick looks like a red version of the birds in Ralph Eggleston's Oscar-winning For the Birds. Lana's pug Precious suggests a cross between Percy in Pocahontas and the loopy dog in Bill Plympton’s short films.
The animation is unimpressive at best. Lepeniotis shouldn't have included comic dance moves if the artists couldn't execute them. Oddly, the most elaborate dance animation unfolds over the credits when a new character and some of the animals break into "Gangnam Style."
The Nut Job was made in Canada and Korea, reportedly in association with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of the Republic of Korea - probably because sitting through the film makes the 12-hour flying time between Los Angeles and Seoul seem brief.