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Ice Age

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Ice Age

Starring: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo
Director: Chris Wedge
Rated: PG
RunTime: 84 Minutes
Release Date: March 2002
Genres: Animation, Comedy, Kids

*Also starring: Denis Leary, Goran Visnjic, Jack Black, Tara Strong, Stephen Root, Denny Dillon, Mitzi McCall, Diedrich Bader, Peter Ackerman

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
2½ stars out of 4

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 laugh department.

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 animated storybooks.

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

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