Tuesday, April 04, 2006

REVIEW: Ice Age 2: The Meltdown

Most of the time, you can't see Manny's mouth.

Manny, voiced by Ray Romano, is more-or-less the lead character of both "Ice Age" films so far. Being that he is a Wooly Mammoth, and thusly a massive and powerful creature covered in bushy hair with his offensive weapons (tusks) perpetually jutting out in front of him, it makes sense that he come off significantly on the "gruffer" side compared to most of his cuddlier, zanier brethren in the fellowship or cartoon animals.

But there's more to it than that. The original film cast Manny with one of the darker personas in cinema-for-the-young: Brooding and bordering on suicidal (as the first film opens, he's walking AGAINST the migration away from the certain doom of the advancing ice) after his wife and children were killed by human hunters. And there's Romano's terse, to-the-point delivery and the storyline which made him both the brains AND most of the muscle (being, essentially, an eleven foot-tall walking tank with giant spears sticking out of his face) of his comic trio... and, yes, thanks to the trunk-obscured shape of a Mammoth's face you usually can't see his mouth; resulting in a default expression resembling nothing so much as Clint Eastwood's grim ambiguity in the "Dollars" cycle.

So, while the "Ice Age" franchise so far doesn't quite have Pixar's polish or "Shrek's" crossover grace, it CAN boast digital animation's mas macho hero, which is certainly something.

It can also boast a certain unique design and oddball energy all it's own, started off in the first film by Chris Wedge and continued here by co-director Carlos Saldhana. (Wedge remains as the voice of "Scrat".) Set among anthropomorphized Megafauna (large-scale prehistoric mammals) during the titular period of global cooling, the overriding contrast of bulky quadropeds moving amidst whited-out snowscapes or sparse forestland ensures that it doesn't look too much like anything else out there.

Plotwise, the franchise has thus far distinguished itself by grounding it's plots in the tradition of mission-oriented "journey" stories with the added flavor of "guy movie" male-bonding: When last we left, Manny had formed a makeshift herd with wacky sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) and stealthy sabre-toothed tiger Diego (Dennis Leary) to help shepherd an orphaned human baby back to it's tribe, complicated by Diego's shifting loyalty to his human-hunting tiger brothers.. though, naturally, that was worked out. Having learned to work together (and to deliver a timely message about alternative families without being preachy) the trio here re-join us, now living comfortably in a hospitable valley among a grab-bag of other species...

...except that "hospitable" part doesn't last long. As our main story begins, the animals discover that the "doomsday" predictions of the local nuts are correct: The Ice Age is ending, and a rising ocean is three days away from spilling back into the valley and drowning them all. And so we've got our new mission: Get to the other side of the valley, where the salvation of a "boat" supposedly awaits, and in the interim solve Diego's newly-revealed fear of water and Manny's growing concern that he may be the last of his species... a concern that is relaxed, only to reveal new issues, by the discovery of female mammoth Ellie (Queen Latifah) who has, let's say, "identity issues."

It's not as emotionally compelling a setup as the prior film, but that's not entirely unexpected. More problematic is the lack, this time around, of a compelling villian. Oh, "the elements" remain the primary antagonist (ice in the first film, fire and water this time) but Goran Visjnic's evil tiger from #1 is sorely missed. In his place are a vulture flock acting as a ticking-clock to armageddon, and a pair of voiceless aquatic dinosaurs unthawed by the melting ice and released into the already unsafe waters. This lack of a central "big bad" mostly harms the film in terms of narrative cohesion: Without one, the story becomes a series of vignettes, though the leviathan duo serve their purpose in providing Manny with a pair of action-hero setpeices.

Among the new cast members, Queen Latifah has the most fun, finally once again allowed to play an actual character and not just Queen Latifah. And, as with the first film, the main story is occasionally interupted for the adventures of squirrel-like Scrat, still locked in his Sisyphean pursuit of the perfect acorn.

As sequels go, it's more "Temple of Doom" than "Empire Strikes Back," but it's engaging and clever and the re-assembled cast is still lots of fun. I'll say reccomended.

FINAL RATING: 7/10