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click to enlarge Snap, Scrat! An army of piranhas is out to get you!
  • Snap, Scrat! An army of piranhas is out to get you!

Ice Age: The Meltdown (PG)

Carmike Stadium 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown

In Ice Age: The Meltdown as in its hit 2002 predecessor the opening and closing sequences are devoted to the misadventures of the twitchy, acorn-obsessed rodent Scrat. He appears in interstitial segments throughout the feature as well, but it's most noteworthy that the filmmakers lead and close with this funky supporting character rather than their ostensible protagonists.

Everyone knows Scrat is the real star of the show. He's there to warm up the audience and to send them out on a comedic high because he's not just the best thing about the Ice Age movies; he may be the funniest cartoon character created since the zenith of Chuck Jones.

There's a level of creativity involved in the Scrat segments pure visual slapstick artistry that bears comparison not just to the heyday of the Coyote and Road Runner, but to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. It's something rarely even attempted in an era when the goal of animated filmmaking often seems to be cramming in as much mile-a-minute, gag-laden dialogue as possible between the poop jokes.

And if the creators of Ice Age devoted even half as much energy and invention to the main story as they did to Scrat, we'd be talking about a classic for the ages instead of a lot of dead air between moments of brilliance.

Like the original Ice Age, in many ways the sequel is a celebration of the kind of unconventional families that don't fit the red-state profile. Phlegmatic mammoth Manny (Ray Romano), saber-toothed tiger Diego (Denis Leary) and simple-minded sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) are still hanging out together, but their little valley appears threatened by global warming if an ice dam yields to the wall of water behind it.

As they head for higher ground, the threesome meet up with Ellie (Queen Latifah), a mammoth who thinks she's a possum. They join forces in their scramble for safety, while a weird little romance develops between Manny and his potential mate, who may be the last female of his kind.

Ultimately, Meltdown isn't particularly interesting. It not only lacks a genuine antagonist (while climate change may be scary to grown-up liberals, abstract concepts make poor Happy Meal toys) but compelling character development as well. Everyone shows up to reprise their roles, because sequels of any kind are basically about more of the same.

Fortunately, that also includes Scrat, a bundle of pure neurotic survival drive, thwarted by the natural world at every possible turn.

Director Carlos Saldanha crafts a few moments of pure genius, nowhere better than when a cut-out circle of lake ice repeatedly separates Scrat from his "prey." Watching those sequences isn't just enough to make you blow soda out your nose; it's a reminder of what animated filmmaking could be if creators would stop pandering to crude humor, or what they think we expect from a sequel.

It's time to put Manny, Sid and Diego out to the pasture of natural selection and allow the Ice Age team to focus on Scrat. To do otherwise would be just plain nuts.

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