Each of the three previous 'Ice Age' movies earned between $175 and $200 million at the domestic box office. Each did even better internationally; the last installment, 'Dawn of the Dinosaurs,' made an incredible $886 million worldwide. In other words: at this point an 'Ice Age' movie is a sure thing. This franchise doesn't need to do anything but show up, and it's guaranteed to make money. In other other words, an 'Ice Age' movie has no reason to take any risks, or vary its formula in any way, and as a result 'Ice Age: Continental Drift' feels less 'Ice Age 4' than 'Ice Age 1.4,' a meager software update on an old, well-worn program.
This time out, the 'Ice Age' critters -- woolly mammoth Manny (Ray Romano), saber-toothed Diego (Denis Leary), and sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) -- contend with the end of the world; you know, for kids. Their home on the ancient supercontinent of Pangaea begins to break apart after Scrat (Chris Wedge), the squirrel whose acorn-obsessed antics kick off each 'Ice Age' production, winds up mucking around inside the Earth's core. It's been a while since I was in high school, but I'm fairly certain this portion of the film is not geologically accurate.
Despite its title and set-up, 'Continental Drift' is not really about the destruction of Pangaea or the formation of the world as we know it (which, in the universe of 'Ice Age' took about thirty-five minutes). All that stuff is just a MacGuffin used to strand Manny, Diego, Sid, and Sid's senile Granny (Wanda Sykes) on an ice floe adrift at sea. There they battle an evil ape (Peter Dinklage) who has turned another ice floe into his personal pirate ship he can steer, somehow, by tugging on a tree branch. He hates Manny and company and repeatedly tries to kill them because otherwise the movie would have no villain.
Dinklage's Captain Gutt also has a whole crew of cutthroats at his command, including Aziz Ansari as a deranged rabbit, Nick Frost as a dopey seal, and Jennifer Lopez as another saber-toothed cat who gets into a rivalry, and then a romance, with Leary's Diego. In order to return Manny to his wife (Queen Latifah) and weirdly anthropomorphized daughter (Keke Palmer), our heroes need to sail to an island, steal Gutt's boat, and ride a current back to the mainland. None of the characters manage to jump a shark in the process, but they might as well.
Any pretense of compelling storytelling is long gone from the 'Ice Age' series by now. These movies are factories of the comfortably familiar, churning out a constant stream of kid-friendly action, chase scenes, and physical comedy. On that level, at least, you can't say that 'Continental Drift' doesn't deliver the goods. But it still pales in comparison to this summer's other computer animated family films, Pixar's 'Brave' and DreamWorks' 'Madagascar 3,' in every possible way. Visually, it lacks 'Brave's rich detail and 'Madagascar''s psychedelic exuberance; narratively, it boasts neither 'Brave''s genuine surprise nor 'Madagascar''s insane dream logic (although the steerable glacier boats comes pretty close).
'Continental Drift'' is busy, but indistinct. It's not boring, but it's not particularly memorable either. It won't take long before it vanishes from your mind like Pangaea from the face of the earth. It's not quite a sure thing, but it's a pretty safe bet.
NOTE: If you do see 'Ice Age: Continental Drift,' get to the theater early. The film is preceded by a short featuring Maggie from 'The Simpsons.' It is the best -- and most surprising -- five minutes of the whole experience.‘Ice Age: Continental Drift’ is in theaters now.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’