A few weeks ago I took my friends' 5-year-old son to see Madagascar 3. Brendan is a very cool kid; I assumed he would sit through the movie quietly and that all the other adults, whose children would no doubt be screaming and hitting people with sticks and excreting unspeakable substances, would be jealous of me. Things went smoothly until Brendan realized the Hulk wasn't going to show up, at which point he became inconsolable and demanded to be transplanted to the auditorium next door, which was showing The Avengers. Things went downhill at breakneck speed.
The fault was entirely mine. Instead of taking him to see Madagascar 3, with all its whimsical charm and thoughtful character development, I should have held out for Ice Age: Continental Drift. The fourth installment in Fox's lucrative prehistoric franchise is so dense and manically paced that Dr. Banner's absence would have gone entirely unnoticed. In fact, the movie is geared so specifically—and successfully—toward its target audience that any sort of adult critique seems almost pointless. Alas, Brendan cannot yet write and has a shockingly poor understanding of mise-en-scène, so the task of reviewing Continental Drift falls to me.
This time around, the franchise's mascot, a mentally unbalanced squirrel-rat hybrid known as Scrat, has more on his shoulders than comic relief; his doomed pursuit of an elusive acorn causes the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea and sets Continental Drift's numerous plots and subplots in motion. Manny, a neurotic woolly mammoth voiced by Ray Romano, is separated from his wife Ellie (voice of Queen Latifah) and Peaches (Keke Palmer), their teenage daughter. As he drifts away on an ice floe with fellow series fixtures Diego (Denis Leary) and Sid (John Leguizamo), Manny promises his family that he'll meet them at the land bridge that still connects the continents. Much seafaring adventure ensues as Manny and co. fight their way through storms, monsters, and pirates to get back home.
Like many sequels, Continental Drift tries to keep things fresh by stuffing the narrative with new characters voiced by a gaggle of celebrities. Most of them, like Nicki Minaj's gum-snapping mean girl and Drake's cooler-than-thou hipster, are too obvious to be interesting. The standouts are Peter Dinklage as a murderous pirate whose penchant for disemboweling his victims has earned him the name Captain Gutt, and Wanda Sykes, who gets all the funniest lines as Sid's senile grandmother.
The real scene-stealers, though, are the film's animators. Expertly rendered in a palette of washed-out pastels, Continental Drift is as gorgeous as CG animation gets, and it has a look that sets it apart from every other cartoon flick we've seen this year. Though it takes many of its narrative cues from The Odyssey, the movie's digital artists seem to be more inspired by the Sinbad movies from the 1970s. The 3D effects, which are probably the best of the summer, lend the creatures a weight and physical presence that recalls the early days of stop-motion animation. The seascapes and landscapes almost become characters in and of themselves, rivaling almost any exotic, live-action scenery you can think of.
The cast is sprawling, and there's certainly enough action to go around as Continental Drift tumbles headfirst from one action sequence to the next. Manny and his pals barely have time to catch their breath after a catastrophic (and visually dazzling) sea storm before they're thrust into combat with a giant crab, shanghaied by Captain Gutt and his crew, or, in the film's strangest and creepiest turn, nearly lured to their deaths by monstrous sirens.
It's all very fast and very loud, but it's never particularly engaging. Kids will love it and that is of course what matters the most—give the filmmakers credit for understanding their target audience—but is there any reason animated movies shouldn't be just as much fun for adults? Take, for instance, the Simpsons short tacked onto the front of Continental Drift. Completely sans dialogue, the silent film-inspired "The Longest Daycare," which follows Maggie Simpson through a day at the Ayn Rand School for Tots, doesn't just give us everything we expect from a good cartoon; it's everything a good film should be. Never has there been a more blatant case of a headliner being upstaged by its opening act.
If you're an animation fan, go ahead and shell out your bucks—you won't regret it. And since you're already there, you might as well stick around for Ice Age, too.