The blockbuster Ice Age movies have left me cold. Toons reliant on a large cast of critters (Happy Meal-friendly) with famous voices making sitcom wisecracks as their impromptu "herd" makes its way through the frozen (but melting, in the last film) landscape of the distant past, the films seem like Fox imitations of the DreamWorks style — verbal and scatological, with a message shoe-horned in as an afterthought.
Except, that is, for the saber-toothed squirrel, Scrat. Non-speaking, bug-eyed nature at its most primal, this Wile E. Coyote with a thing for gigantic nuts has been the selling point and the saving grace of these movies, never more so than in Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. The new film gives us Scrat not just chasing a nut, but fighting for it with another squirrel. It gives us Scrat in love. It gives us Scrat in 3-D. Manny the mammoth might be "the biggest thing on Earth," but this is almost Scrat's movie.
Manny (Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah) are expecting a baby mammoth. That has Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo) feeling maternal and Diego the saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) feeling his age. When Sid stumbles across some gigantic frozen eggs in a deep ice cave, he resolves to mother little "Eggbert, Shellby and Yolko." When the real mother T. rex shows up and Sid disappears into an underground world where dinosaurs roam, his herd comes to his rescue.
They're helped on this quest by a prehistoric weasel, a lunatic survivalist voiced with goofy bravado by Simon Pegg.
Manny learns about fatherhood, Diego gets his groove back and eternal adolescent Sid grows up just a smidge as they battle dinosaurs, "Lava Falls," the "Chasm of Death," the "Jungle of Doom" and the "Plates of Woe." Whoa.
Some of the jokes work. The story seems concocted by a committee of BlackBerrys. But the 3-D computer-generated animation is quite an improvement from the first two films. The depth and detail are more striking than in Pixar's latest raise-the-bar toon, Up.
And the sight gags, most of them courtesy of that maniacally determined squirrel, pay off. You root for Scrat even as you dread the explaining on the drive home, that "No, dinosaurs didn't live with sabre-toothed tigers, dear. I don't know where those writers studied biology."