The Ice Age films - four and counting now - are a wholesome, entertaining laugh-riot for kids and a pleasant distraction for adults. And they come with one of cinema's best running jokes.
Yes, it's Scrat the sabre-toothed squirrel and his pursuit of an acorn that remains hilariously out of his reach.
The recurring gag often provides the best joke in each Ice Age film. He's been stepped on, struck by lightning, frozen in ice and dropped into a volcano. In the last film, a female sabre-toothed squirrel - a real trickster minx - seduces him out of his precious nut before both end up trapped in bubbles and performing a balletic battle for the lone prize.
In cinema terms, Scrat's acorn obsession is a perfect example of the "objet petit a" - unattainable object of desire - where an object remains out of the protagonist's reach in order to drive the plot forward. Other examples include the gasoline in Mad Max, the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark and, most famously, the sleigh in Citizen Kane.
Okay, there ends the lesson in film theory. Yet Scrat's blind pursuit of his beloved nut not only kicks off the action in this giddy fourth instalment but comes to a hilarious, genius head.
In an effort to bury one of the giant nuts, Scrat causes the ice to crack and split. A chain reaction leads Manny (voice of Ray Romano), Diego (Denis Leary) and Sid (John Leguizamo) to become separated from the rest of the herd and cast adrift on an iceberg.
Manny's wife Ellie (Queen Latifah) and now teenage daughter Peaches are left behind and in grave danger. It's up to Manny, Diego and Sid to find a way back and rescue the herd. But when they encounter an iceberg ship full of feral pirates led by a power-mad ape (Peter Dinklage), that's easier said than done.
The first 30 minutes of Continental Drift does just as the title says, drifts along like an iceberg as it introduces new characters and establishes the challenge at hand. Manny and co battle a storm, starvation and Sid's stinky toothless granny (Wanda Sykes) in their lonely iceberg-ship before they even tangle with those pirates.
But once the band of pirate-misfits enter the film, it hits its madcap straps, riffing heavily on Pirates of the Caribbean and adding some significant new voice talents to new characters, including Nick Frost as an elephant seal and Jennifer Lopez as an albino saber-tooth tiger. The ape Captain Gutt is a terrific character - cunning and vile and slightly scary - and the best villain of the franchise.
However, the rest of the herd is all but forgotten in lieu of the trio's battle with the pirates, and the burgeoning love between Peaches and her mole-friend Walter (Aziz Ansari) goes nowhere. But others make up for the flat spots and plot holes. The twin possum twits Crash and Eddie (Seann William Scott, Josh Peck) provide plenty of Three Stooges-style laughs, and Sid's gammy granny is a grab bag of guffaws.
Sure, the Ice Age films don't have the emotional gravitas or heavyweight storytelling of the Pixar films. But they are whimsical, lightweight fun and just as clever in their own right. This instalment is just as good as the other three. Yet Scrat's show-stopper finale - where he discovers the mother load of acorns - puts it over the top, and is worth the price of the admission alone.Ice Age: Continental Drift is now screening.
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