THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


This year marks the first time an Academy Award was given for Best Animated Film. It is perhaps no surprise that the three films nominated (Shrek, Monsters, Inc. and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius) were all computer-animated. Although still beloved by many (myself included), traditional cel animation has, in some ways, lost the ability to thrill us. Animation done by computers, though, continues to develop, and it seems like every new feature is more groundbreaking than the last. The newest film in this ever-expanding genre is Ice Age, and like its predecessors, this is a technical marvel that leads animation further into the future.

Sid the Sloth makes a run for it in the computer-animated comedy Ice Age
Ray Romano provides the voice of Manny, a woolly mammoth who's as cranky as he is big and hairy. While most of the other prehistoric animals are migrating south to avoid the impending freezing of the Earth, Manny just wants to stay home and get some peace and quiet. Another straggler is a sloth named Sid (John Leguizamo), who needs a bodyguard after picking a fight with some rhinos. Manny doesn't want to protect Sid, but Sid doesn't give him the option of choosing. Not long afterward, Sid discovers a human baby that has been separated from its tribe. He enlists Manny to help him return it, but a tiger named Diego (Denis Leary) wants to take the baby back to his cohorts for dinner (or, should I say, as dinner). Diego is the only one who can lead Manny and Sid through a glacier to safety, but no one knows if he can be trusted or not.

In addition to the main story, there is a running gag about a scrawny little squirrel named Scrat who keeps losing the acorn he desperately tries to hold on to. The movie comes back to Scrat about a half-dozen times, and the character always gets a big laugh.

Ice Age was directed by Chris Wedge, who won an Oscar for his short film Bunny. His company, Blue Sky Studios, used a technology called Ray Tracing that, according to the movie's press kit, "mimics the myriad subtleties of ambient light," thereby giving the image a more realistic look (considering, of course, that the picture is filled with talking animals). Explains the director: "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." Additionally, Blue Sky's team researched and developed new ways to realistically create fur, landscapes, and steam rising off water. The end product is really amazing; the film is worth seeing just to "see" it.

But more than that, Ice Age is worth seeing because it's a great time at the movies. The actors bring real personality to their animated characters and the screenplay is filled with humor. I laughed hysterically every time Scrat came back, although there are other funny scenes as well. One of my favorite moments featured Manny and Sid encountering a group of Dodo birds, who have planned for the coming freeze by stockpiling a whole three watermelons. (They also prove their martial arts abilities with a demonstration of Tae Kwon Dodo.) It's a rarely-stated fact that some of the best comedy writing comes in animated movies, where writers have the ability to insert witty or subversive gags for the adults in a way that children won't get. This picture does that, and the main voice actors are talented enough comedians to know how to nail the jokes.

There's a lot to laugh at here, but there's also a surprising amount of emotion in the story. I heard a few audience members sniffling tears of joy at the ending. When a movie can make you laugh, cheer, and cry all in under 90 minutes, you know it is working. I think it's a safe bet that Ice Age will be a front-runner for next year's Best Animated Film Oscar.

( 1/2 out of four)

Ice Age is rated PG for mild peril. The running time is 1 hour and 21 minutes.

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