There's considerably less drift in Ice Age: Continental Drift, the latest in a long line of lucrative cartoons from Blue Sky Studios and their friends at Fox. It's all sight gags and action beats, which tends to cover the shortcomings of these assembly-line farces. And at a brisk 94 minutes, it's less reliant on charm-starved chatter among its increasingly overstuffed voice cast.
Yes, there are even more big names doing the talking for the various critters: Pop stars Nicki Minaj and Jennifer Lopez join up, with Peter Dinklage, Wanda Sykes, Joy Behar, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. But that old rule "They only add more big names to the voice cast when they're worried about the animation" doesn't apply. This is the least chatty film of this series.
The Ice Age movies are known for their sloppy science, and this one has the growing extended family of mammoths (Ray Romano, Queen Latifah and now "daughter" Keke Palmer) split up by the splitting of continents. Yeah, Scrat, that nut-obsessed saber-toothed squirrel, had something to do with it.
Manny the mammoth (Romano), Diego the saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary), Sid, the innocent but accident-prone sloth (John Leguizamo, always funny), and Sid's Granny (Sykes) are adrift on an iceberg, wondering how to get back to the others. That's when they meet the pirates. Of course there are pirates.
Captain Gutt is the primate who has figured out how to turn icebergs into buccaneer boats, and his scurvy crew of rabbits, sea lions and blood-thirsty gulls has designs on Manny & Co.
Gutt (voiced by Peter Dinklage) leads his crew in a lusty pirate sea chantey.
"In a world that's going under, you must learn to plunder," croons Dinklage (Game of Thrones). He's helped by his own tiger sidekick (Lopez).
The castaway Ice Agers plot to foil the pirates, with the help of a gag borrowed from Open Season. And back on dry, drifting land, we get a couple of life lessons in which the kid mammoth Peaches (Palmer) learns that "cool kids" who want you to abandon your old friends aren't cool.
And every so often, Scrat has another frustrating encounter with that elusive prehistoric acorn.
Sykes' Granny might mutter "All this sweetness is gonna rot my teeth," but it all goes by so quickly that even text-checking parents won't mind.
The animation is better than ever (check out the photo-real water and ice). The 3-D sight gags (jabs through the screen and drool dropping off it) work. No, it's not Rio, Blue Sky's best effort to date. But it's steadily raised the bar on the look of these films, if not the science lessons in the script.
(A brief, witty and dialogue-free Simpsons 3-D short film, The Longest Daycare, precedes this Ice Age. Maggie, the baby, is tormented while trying to save a butterfly from a baby bully at the internment camp where she's deposited by her parents each day. Four minutes, five pretty big laughs. Nice.)