The "Ice Age" franchise is like the "Shrek" series of Blue Sky Studios (a kind of mini-Pixar based in suburban Connecticut) – a new entry comes out every couple of years, usually to diminishing returns (creatively) but tons of box office. The last one, 2009's deliriously dull "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs," wasn't a movie as much as it was a series of loosely connected gags, disparate short films stitched together to form a barely feature-length product…and yet it's the fourth highest grossing animated film of all time. Woof. "Ice Age: Continental Drift," the fourth (!) film in the franchise, is handsomely animated and features a story that, while hopelessly familiar, at least seems to be part of a whole. Also, there are pirates. So there's that.
Assuming that you already know what's happened in the previous installments (or maybe that you simply don't care either way), "Ice Age: Continental Drift" picks up right where the last film left off (we're assuming – honestly we can't remember it that well), with our main characters – wooly mammoth Manny (Ray Romano), sabre-toothed tiger Diego (Denis Leary) and sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) -- kind of walking around the ever-changing primordial landscape. There's not a lot of forward momentum to these movies, because there is never any discernable goal for any of the main characters, and the action is frequently broken up to check in with Scrat, the silent, nut-obsessed sable-toothed squirrel, who has become the Mickey Mouse of the franchise. These interludes are funny but add to the frustratingly fragmented nature of the storytelling.
An earthquake leaves Manny separated from his family – his wife Ellie (Queen Latifah) and young daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer), along with a pair of weasels (or something) played by Seann William Scott and Josh Peck. Our three main characters are set adrift, in the wide-open ocean, on a slender piece of ice. So, a goal (of sorts) is set into motion – Manny needs to reconnect with his family before further catastrophe erupts. (It should be noted that, when they're working, the "Ice Age" movies contain a palpable sense of apocalyptic gloom – this happens when you set a series of children's movies on the brink of worldwide extinction.) The problem with the goal, of course, is that it has been utilized in at least two of the previous "Ice Age" movies, and also "The Land Before Time" and "Happy Feet Two" (amongst others). It's a little too familiar for its own good.
Thankfully, things get shaken up when the characters' small iceberg boat are boarded by pirates. Yes, pirates. It doesn't make much sense, but it makes slightly more sense than dinosaurs being in the last movie, so we'll call it a marginal improvement. The pirates are led by the villainous Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage – brilliant), a scurvy-ridden primate, with long, mangy dreadlocks and hair that's styled into a pirate's hat. The rest of the motley crew includes a prehistoric rabbit played by Aziz Ansari and a giant, blubbery seal played by Nick Frost. You can tell that the animators were growing tired of designing cuddly prehistoric creatures and are relishing the chance to create some truly fearsome and unlovable beasts – it shows. The Captain Gutt design in particular is something to goggle at; he towers as a technical and artistic wonder.
So things are set in motion, more or less (or in about as much motion as an "Ice Age" movie can drum up) – Manny, Diego and Sid have to slip out of the grasp of the pirates and get back to Manny's family. Of course, it's not that easy, especially since Diego has fallen in love with a svelte, morally conflicted sabre-toothed cat on Captain Gutt's crew, played with feline sleekness by Jennifer Lopez (her design is great too). Other than our heroes' plight, we are also treated to the rest of the herd (including Manny's family) wandering around the continent (Peaches is also falling in love – with a mammoth voiced by Canadian rapper Drake, yes, seriously) and an extended Scrat subplot involving him searching for a legendary treasure.
"Ice Age: Continental Drift" isn't nearly as exhausting as all of that sounds. But it sometimes gets close. The problem with these movies is that scenes rarely click into place, and lack an overarching narrative, which is a huge problem both practically and thematically. There's one scene where Lopez's Shira is imprisoned by our heroes and it totally comes out of left field. The scene literally begins with her behind bars. And we have no context, so instead of paying attention to the movie (something was happening), you're left wondering – wait, these characters who we're supposed to be invested in (who are fundamentally good guys) are imprisoning women? What? And how did they even do that since none of them have opposable thumbs or prehensile tails.
Similarly, at some point sirens are introduced. Yes, sirens. Like in Greek mythology, only they're designed (quite well, actually) to look like a scaly monster out of some fifties drive-in movie, as to fit vaguely within the pre-established "Ice Age" world. Except that you can't really introduce some magical element without backing it up or following through with it. It seems like every time the creative team (directors Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier and writers Michael Berg, Jason Fuchs, and Mike Reiss) reach a narrative wall they just throw in some random non-sequitur and think, "Well, people will go with it. They love that sloth!"
And, honestly, for "Ice Age: Continental Drift" to be as entertaining as it is, is sort of a miracle. You can tell everyone is running really low on ideas, and the animators at Blue Sky have dreamed up some truly beautiful vistas and environments (as nerdy as it sounds, their water simulators are breathtaking) and the older characters' design have been subtlety tweaked in refreshing ways. It's also incredibly short (even with a droll 3D "The Simpsons" short film tacked on to the beginning), which, in a summer where even waffle like "Battleship" extends over two hours, isn't faint praise. [B]