Remember the wonderful teaser for "Ice Age" that started its run last
year? Playing less like an ad and more like a short cartoon unto itself,
the piece followed a twitchy, bug-eyed critter called a Scrat (half
squirrel/half rat), as it desperately looked for a spot in the Arctic
clime to bury an acorn. The wordless slapstick mini-feature had the
spirit of a vintage Warner Brothers cartoon. The big question raised by
the teaser was "Can 'Ice Age' possibly live up to this?"
The answer is yes and no. It turns out that Scrat has no part in the
computer-animated film's primary storyline. The Scrat footage shown in
the teaser opens "Ice Age," then the varmint disappears, only to make
additional appearances throughout the movie; always alone, always
fixated on finding a safe spot for its precious acorn. The Scrat
segments are very funny, funnier in fact, than the rest of the film.
That's not a problem, though, because the dynamic personalities of the
other characters more than compensate for any slight deficits in the
Set 20,000 years ago, the main storyline of "Ice Age" opens as all the
creatures of the era migrate southwards to avoid getting a world-class
case of frostbite. All, that is, except for a woolly mammoth named
Manfred (voiced by Ray Romano) that heads the other direction just to be
contrary. Along the way, Manny ends up the reluctant caretaker of an
abandoned human baby named Roshan and Sid (John Leguizamo), a mouthy
sloth eager to align himself with a massive protector. They are joined
by Diego (Denis Leary), a saber-toothed tiger that agrees to help Manny
and Sid reunite the tot with his family. In fact, he is present to steer
the others into an ambush.
OK, so the plot sounds a lot like "Monsters Inc." (Or "Three Men and a
Baby," as far as that goes). But plot is almost irrelevant in CGI
animated features. Basically, they're all about quests or rescue
missions. What's important in CGI films is the quality of the art, the
Wow! factor of the digital imagery and the quality of the voice work.
"Ice Age" delivers. The art is striking – the creatures are presented
with big, broad style, reminiscent of early Warner Brothers cartoon
characters, only with a lush, airbrushed covering. As for the Wow!
factor, the Fox artists take a different approach than their comrades at
Pixar and Dreamworks. Instead of focusing on bodily details, they
struggled long and hard on lighting techniques. Check out the very
impressive way the light plays off the snow and ice, or how it scatters
off the fur of the animals. According to the press notes, Blue Sky
Studios, the filmmakers' company, developed a new piece of software they
call Ray Tracing.
Director Chris Wedge explains, "Ray Tracing simulates the complexities
of real light, mimicking the matrix of colors and shadows that we
experience all the time in the real world. It's a kind of digital
cinematography that lets us use our computers like a photographer uses a
camera, making everything on screen look more compelling, inviting and
tangible." Thanks to the Ray Tracing, "Ice Age" effectively presents a
wide-open look unlike other CGI features, which mostly look like
First pitched in 1997, "Ice Age" was originally intended to be a 2D,
hand drawn feature, but following the success of "A Bug's Life" and
"Antz," Fox decided to give computer graphics a shot, turning to their
boys at Blue Skies. The filmmakers suffered a lot during production.
Funds were cut and a major character, a female sloth voiced by Kristen
Johnston, was removed from the movie, due to pacing issues or poor
reactions from test audiences, depending on which staff person is
talking. Look for her to turn up on the DVD.
Those characters that were retained are brought to life by very
effective voice work. "Everybody Loves Raymond" star Ray Romano mixes
authoritative tones with a drollop of world-weariness as Manny, the
woolly mammoth. During an appearance on David Letterman this week, he
said that he offered to "mammoth up" his voice, but was told to "just
talk like you." Good call. Denis Leary is strong as Diego, the
sabertooth tiger with questionable loyalties, and John Leguizamo hits
the right comic notes as Sid the sloth, giving the creature a lateral
lisp after finding out that sloths often store food in their cheeks.
While recent traditionally animated features have experienced trouble
connecting with viewers, CGI productions keep on hitting the bullseye.
Add "Ice Age" to the list.
Copyright © 2002 Edward Johnson-Ott