Run the Series: Ice Age

With the fifth and possibly final instalment, Collision Course, now in theatres, let’s take a run back through the Ice Age series.

The Ice Age series is apparently the first animated feature franchise to have five full-length theatrical entries in its series in animation history.  Five.  That’s ridiculous.  Shrek couldn’t even make it to five before sputtering out the first time, unless you count the spin-off Puss in Boots movie, and Shrek altered the entire landscape of American feature-length animation in ways that are still being felt to this very day.  Instead, Shrek came up on a full decade since its first film opened and audiences decided, “Nah, we’ve had enough of those, thanks.”  Yet Ice Age, 14 whole years after it first ambled into theatres, is still going strong today.  The last entry, 2012’s Continental Drift, was the highest-grossing animated film of the year worldwide and beat box-office megahits like the first Hunger Games, Amazing Spider-Man, and even the final Twilight movie.

This baffles me, as I am sure it baffles you.  After all, in America, the Ice Age series has never really been a cultural heavy-hitter, outside of the first one, never managing to break $200 mil domestic despite the addition of 3D and the assumption that a series grows its audience after the first one in order to make significantly more money – Continental Drift even closed in the US having made less money there than the original film did a decade earlier without even having to adjust for inflation.  Here in the UK, meanwhile, each entry makes a tonne of money, with Collision Course having made more in its official opening weekend (it ran in previews for two weekends beforehand) than Ghostbusters managed to, yet I see no actual lasting impact from that series at all.  Each new film brings about a collective, “Wait, that series is still going?” from everyone I talk to, and these are people who were young enough to remember and appreciate the first Ice Age when it originally dropped.

I’ve talked about how 2002 was the second-most significant year in animation history this century before, during The DreamWorks Animation Retrospective (plugplug), but I need to restate for context here.  2002 was the year that traditional animation in the American feature-length animation market finally breathed its last.  It had been a long time coming – the success of the first Toy Story back in ‘95 set the dynamite, whilst the catastrophic failure of Titan A.E. in 2000 lit the fuse – but an endless string of box-office bombs and underperformers, from previously sure-fire safe-bets like a Powerpuff Girls Movie to riskier fare like post-Shrek DreamWorks’ Spirit to even Disney posting a full-on indisputable loss with Treasure Planet, finally hammered the last nail in the coffin of the medium.  There was just one legitimate hit for traditional animation that year, Lilo & Stitch, and it failed to finish as the highest-grossing animated film of the year.  That honour instead went to the first Ice Age.

It’s honestly really hard to talk about that first Ice Age free of context of what that series turned into, cos the original film is so completely removed from the loud nonsense that the franchise is today.  Ice Age floated about in script form for a few years, certain rumours that I can’t verify claim that the script was offered up to Disney only for them to pass, before ending up at the doorstep of 20th Century Fox Animation.  Don Bluth and Gary Goldman were originally all set to direct it, but then the aforementioned colossal failure of Titan A.E. proceeded to kill their careers, the medium of traditional animation, and bankrupt Fox’s internal Animation studio, necessitating its shutdown.  From there, the script made its way over to (at the time) New York-based animation studio Blue Sky which Fox had acquired through one of its subdivisions back in the late-90s to bolster its visual effects department.

But Blue Sky had bigger plans than merely being a producer of special effects and television commercials.  One of the studio’s co-founders, Chris Wedge, wanted to tell stories and, in 1997, got a chance to fulfil that dream by writing and directing the slightly off-kilter and surprisingly downbeat short film Bunny.  Bunny would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Short at the 1999 ceremony, and Blue Sky and Chris Wedge would eventually be given the opportunity to try their hand at Ice Age.  It’s a pairing that actually makes a lot of sense when one watches Bunny.  The first Ice Age is constantly powered by this melancholy undercurrent of sadness, inevitability, and genuine emotional weight.  The spectres of death and grief loom over the film even before they make themselves fully known in its final 20 or so minutes, very similarly to Bunny.

Ice AgeTellingly, Blue Sky wanted to make Ice Age a full-on drama, but Fox wanted them to instead create a crowd-pleasing children’s comedy.  Blue Sky acquiesced, but kept the drama undercurrent anyway, creating what Wedge and Ray Romano explicitly refer to on the DVD’s extras as a “dramedy.”  In that respect, the ghosts of Bluth and Goldman still manage to hang around the film, even though they had no involvement with it, in more ways than just it heavily tapping into the well of the first Land Before Time.  The best Bluth-Goldman films were dramas that didn’t talk down to their audiences.  Bluth and Goldman recognised that kids are smart, that they are more mature than most give them credit for, and so want to be pushed and can handle being confronted with emotionally-heavy sequences and concepts (or are perfectly happy to be traumatised by being confronted with said), and Wedge and his team of writers similarly recognised this.

The clever trick that Ice Age managed to pull off in order to have its metaphorical cake and eat it too was to clearly delineate the wacky cartoony comedy and the more serious and dramatic melancholy by almost literally keeping the two halves separate.  The adventures of Manny, Diego, and Sid, as they transport the little human kid back to its tribe – with Diego facing a crisis of conscience over having to lead them all into a trap so that his pack’s leader can murder the boy for revenge – have the odd wacky setpiece, like when they stumble into a pack of dodos to find some food and summarily watch them extinct themselves.  But for the most part, laughs are found in character interactions and rooted in a smaller, more realistic and personal grounding.

In sharp contrast, Scrat’s adventures with the acorn are louder, sillier, and actively cartoony.  They draw upon the absurd, of the universe doing everything in its Kafkaesque power to ensure Scrat cannot get that acorn.  These vignettes, to call them what they effectively are, have no bearing on the main plot and you could, in theory, excise them from the film and lose nothing.  Except for the fact that you’d take a core part of the first Ice Age’s identity with it.  For one, imagine starting Ice Age without Scrat.  Imagine just being dumped right into the migration and being introduced to Manny.  It doesn’t feel right, it’s too much exposition being dumped at once, but Scrat’s misadventures ease you in.  Furthermore, not only do the constant cuts back to Scrat provide a nice reprieve from the heavier emotional sections – without undercutting their power because Scrat’s appearances are infrequent and the film wisely knows to get shot of them completely by the time the Third Act properly kicks in – they form the central dynamic of Ice Age.  The push-pull give-take balance of wacky comedy and serious drama where the comedy keeps the film crowd-pleasing and away from misery, and the drama keeps things from… well, from becoming the sequels.

Again, the original Ice Age is nothing particularly groundbreaking, even for 2002.  Aside from the obvious Land Before Time lifts, the central character dynamics that power the film are basically a mash-up of Shrek and Monsters, Inc. (both of which were released well into this film’s production).  But it’s the melancholy that powers the film – which is still unique in American feature-length animation today, I’m honestly surprised more studios haven’t tried aping it – and the refusal to talk down to or insult the kids’ intelligence that makes the film hold up to this day.  The raid on the human tribe by the sabres, the near-wordless scene where the dying mother hands the child over to Manny and Sid, the cave-painting reveal of Manny’s backstory which still chokes me up thinking about it, Diego’s sacrifice.  These are the Big Scenes and they work because they feel a part of the film that surrounds them due to the open melancholy and occasional outright sadness of those scenes being constants throughout the film’s undercurrent, arguably even in Scrat’s digressions.  It’s basic storytelling technique, but it’s vital to point out for reasons that will become apparent soon enough, and it works gangbusters.

Diego’s resurrection just before the credits is the one time that Ice Age insults the viewer’s intelligence, especially since his death is what the entire film had been building towards so his miraculous recovery almost undoes his entire arc.  Unsurprisingly, Diego was supposed to die but this had to be changed when test audiences burst into massive tears as a result.  And whilst this may have been an understandable move, it also disappointingly becomes, in hindsight, the moment that the Ice Age series stopped giving kids the benefit of the doubt and started talking down to them and treating them like idiots who will be amused by any loud shiny thing put up on screen.  It hasn’t really stopped since then.  The Meltdown, released four years later with Carlos Saldanha promoted to director and none of the original’s writing team making a return, confirms this almost immediately by trading in the original’s unique melancholic identity in favour of shamelessly aping the hot new trends in American feature-length animation at the time.

Now, in fairness, the original Ice Age was hopping on a few bandwagons as well – in fact, Ice Age’s runaway worldwide success in 2002 basically solidified CG Animation as the dominant form in the American feature-length market.  But it also had that unique melancholy I won’t stop banging on about despite it being very hard to actually describe in words.  More than that, it also had a sincere love for its cast, its world, itself as a work of fiction.  This was a film clearly being made by people who were interested in the story that they were telling, who were excited to tell it, and resultantly didn’t spend their entire time second-guessing their audience or treating them like morons.  At basically no point throughout The Meltdown does any part of that last sentence make itself known in an affirmative way.

Ice Age: The MeltdownPrimarily, The Meltdown begins Ice Age’s metamorphosis into essentially becoming a hacky sitcom housed inside loud soulless animated filmmaking.  The trio of Manny, Diego, and Sid were very archetypal and simple in their dynamics in the original Ice Age, but that worked because the quiet sadness fuelling the film revealed surprising shades and depth to their characterisations that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.  Having them grieve, combat loneliness, depression, abandonment, a lack of respect; all of these things evolved a bog-standard dynamic – The Curmudgeon, The Snarker, The Comic Relief – into something greater.  But The Meltdown strips away that sadness and reveals something that all bad sequels do: the character dynamics are still exactly the same as when everyone first met, and they never have and never will change.  Oh, sure, Diego’s not planning on eating anybody and they all nominally have each other’s backs in situations of great peril, but they rarely act like the best friends or surrogate family that the original film built towards them becoming.  Even after four sequels, Manny is still the grumpy surrogate father, everyone hates Sid, and Diego… err…

Diego really doesn’t get to do anything outside of the first Ice Age.  Every subplot thrown his way is ripped straight from 50s Sitcom 101, which in fairness is par-for-the-course with the Ice Age sequels but there’s something extra tossed-off and disinterested in Diego’s plotlines.  In The Meltdown, he has a phobia of water.  That’s it.  I know, it’s exactly as riveting as it sounds.  As for the other subplots, cos The Meltdown doesn’t have a main plot in all honesty, Sid wants to be respected by the rest of the group.  This is focussed on just once, when he gets kidnapped by a tribe of sloths to be sacrificed in a volcano for reasons that honestly escape me (and I wasn’t kidding when I told you the mid-2000s had a weird obsession with featuring setpieces in animated films revolving around volcanos).  Manny, meanwhile, is sad about supposedly being the last mammoth left alive – and you have no idea just how many times my eyes rolled when that first gets brought up, that’s how insulted I was by its laziness – until he meets Ellie whilst everybody is on migration.

And so begins the series’ penchant for token love interests whenever it’s completely out of ideas for any member of its cast, as well as its habit of collecting an endless supply of side-characters and never ever ditching any of them between films.  Ellie brings along with her two possums, Crash and Eddie, who are her brothers because – as revealed through a flashback that carries no emotional weight cos, unlike the first Ice Age, it doesn’t fit the tone of what we’ve seen so far and therefore comes off as blatantly manipulative – Ellie was an orphaned mammoth found by Crash and Eddie who convinced her that she was a possum.  Ellie is not particularly interesting, which is a genuine compliment for something in this series, but Crash and Eddie are active irritants.  The whole point of their existence in these films is to provide the lowest of lowest common-denominator comedy for the children in the audience, and they can’t even pull that off.  You could cut them from all of these films and lose nothing, even The Meltdown since that would remove the pointless possum quirk for Ellie, yet they keep turning up in every sequel to provide endless tired gags of insulting simplicity.

Really, the only time that The Meltdown ever comes alive – aside from a sudden musical number which retroactively foreshadows the Rio series – are in the Scrat segments, which also take up much more of the film this time.  That feels less because everyone wanted to double down on the original’s breakout star and more because there is barely enough material to get this film to an hour, let alone 84 minutes.  But that said, there’s definitely a spark when the film flips over to Scrat as it gets to start indulging all of its craziest cartoon impulses and creating some legitimately funny physical gags that are sorely missing from the rest of the film.  It admittedly does start the series’ mistake of having Scrat’s misadventures directly tie into the more-grounded (in what is now a skewed relative definition of the term) adventures of The Herd, but they’re also the only time that everyone involved with the film seems to be trying to achieve more than the most basic and bare minimum, like all everyone just wants to do is make an entire film of near-dialogue-free slapstick comedy.

Dawn of the Dinosaurs basically makes this text as Scrat’s section of the film is this time devoted to a contentious relationship with a female counterpart, Scratte.  These continue to be the complete antithesis of the original film, but the blatant old-school Red Wolf-Tex Avery inspiration lights a fire under everyone’s collective arse and the results, although they won’t win any prizes for originality, are some of the biggest laughs of the entire franchise.  They’re not beholden to the hacky sitcom plotlines and developments that the rest of the series has to deal with, so they require active imagination on the part of the filmmakers.  And it does truly feel bizarre to level the “hacky sitcom plotlines” criticism at Dawn of the Dinosaurs since, as the title suggests, this is the one where we discover that the dinosaurs never actually died out and were instead driven deep underground where they’ve started re-thriving in secret.

Yet the film seems faintly embarrassed by its own damn premise, so the subplots framing that premise involve: Manny being worried about his inbound baby, Diego feeling like he’s lost his killer edge, and Sid stealing some dinosaur eggs because he wants somebody to love, with his eventual kidnapping by the eggs’ real mother being the catalyst to getting The Herd down to the dinosaur world.  If there’s a throughline to Ice Age – besides being totally devoid of ideas and shamelessly existing purely to fulfil some quotas for 20th Century Fox – it’s that of an exploration of every last possible Middle-Aged Sitcom Dad plot which has ever existed.  Even the characters who aren’t actual dads will still go through a slightly rewritten Home Improvement script, regardless.  Upon reflection, it’s not much of a surprise that Ray Romano was cast as Manny, since this series has ended up as a stealth-Everybody Loves Raymond continuation.

Ice Age: Dawn of the DinosaursSo, because of those incredibly hacky subplots, the manic no-holds-barred fun that should be powering Dawn of the Dinosaurs is absent every time that Scrat and/or Scratte are not on screen, cos the film conspicuously feels like its holding back.  A character like Buck – a manic, crazy weasel who becomes The Herd’s guide through The Lost World – ends up becoming the outlier, a fleeting tantalising glimpse as to the film that Dawn could have been rather than the one we have.  The main cast remain static, with the notable exception of Sid who continues his regression into massively irritating Too Dumb to Live imbecile, and their various plots and characters are so lacking in investment from the filmmakers that it’s impossible to care as a viewer about what happens to them.

For example, every Ice Age film has a villain.  In basically all of them, there is absolutely no reason for there to be a villain, yet one exists anyway seemingly solely because all animated films by law are required to have one.  In fact, The Meltdown wasn’t supposed to have one at all, with the incoming flood acting as the sole antagonistic force, but everyone believed there needed to be a villain with a face.  Cue the Cretaceous and the Maelstrom, two voiceless and personality-free non-entities who are unfrozen from slumber, appear for barely five minutes across two scenes, are dispatched with no difficulty, and have as much bearing on the film as Men’s Rights Activists did on The Force Awakens’ box office.  There’s an especially evil dino in Dawn of the Dinosaurs who is similarly pointless with the sole exception of providing a reason to keep Buck out of the next film, and the villains of Collision Course openly admit multiple times throughout the film that their reasons for being villains are stupid and make absolutely no sense.

Goddammit, this is basic goddamn storytelling, yet almost every Ice Age trips over this stuff on a constant basis.  The one time outside of the original that the series manages to provide a villain with understandable motivations, a genuine impact on the plot, and a personality of some description is in Continental Drift with Captain Gutt.  He’s a pirate, he picks up our main trio (and Sid’s elderly grandmother because this series apparently didn’t already have enough characters) and tries to conscript them into his pirate army, they embarrass him and destroy his ship whilst in the process of escaping, so he wants revenge.  Again, this is just basic storytelling, yet Ice Age actually pulling that off for once is apparently worthy of genuine shock and note.

By default, Continental Drift is the best of the Ice Age sequels, even though there’s very little to discuss about it since, much like with the rest of the sequels, once you’ve noted the drop-off in quality and change in direction for the series after the original, there’s very little of note distinguishing any of these movies.  Continental Drift is the least Ice Age-y film in the series, which sounds ridiculous since the series has no identity beyond mashing up whatever was popular in the year that it was released – in 2012’s case that’s pirates, lavish 3D setpieces, and stunt-casting musicians in voice roles – stapling it to the hackiest of sitcom tropes, and then releasing the resulting concoction, but it is true.

Ice Age: Continental DriftThe half of the film that follows The Herd as they’re set adrift from Ellie and Peaches (Manny’s daughter) drops the stock sitcom routine for a stock kids’ animated feature routine instead.  It’s honestly kind of refreshing given the state of the series beforehand, even if it resorts to pulling a barely-written love interest for Diego out of thin air because they are officially out of ideas for his character.  That’s why it’s really disappointing to keep cutting back to the mainland for another thrilling instalment of “Peaches is a Teenage Girl Dealing with Boys!” in the most cliché and condescending manner possible.  But even the Scrat segments, outside of the final Atlantis parody, feel rather tired, unsure of where they’re supposed to go or what they’re supposed to do now that there are 3 different registers for the film to operate on instead of the usual 2.  Their creativity is gone, and I estimate that Scrat appears the least amount in this film than in any of the others.

In fact, I’d argue that Continental Drift is mostly a reaction to the 2010 debut of Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me, whose studio is headed up by former Blue Sky overseer Chris Meledandri.  Despicable Me reads and rips straight from Ice Age’s playbook with one notable difference: Illumination’s joke writers are actually talented at their jobs.  And I honestly think this terrified those at Blue Sky since, overnight, Despicable Me theoretically put Ice Age out of business, so they had to react in order to stave off extinction.  They switched tracks, and though Continental Drift was domestically rejected, its foreign performance was such a total steamroller that it managed to reassure the studio that they still had a cash cow to fund films that they actually wanted to make – 2011’s Rio was the most alive the studio had been in a long time, even if it still wasn’t great.

Which finally brings us to Collision Course.  A film in which Neal deGrasse Tyson voices a character called Neal deBuck Weasel.  Where Peaches’ here-to-unseen fiancé Julian sings a segment of Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark” for no reason other than the cheap pop of recognition.  Where Crash and Eddie make hashtag “jokes” despite it still being pre-historic times.  Where no less than 12 brand new characters are introduced in addition to a large percentage of the previous films’ cast returning.  Where one of the only two actually-decent Scrat sequences was given away for free the year before as a short leading into The Peanuts Movie.  If Continental Drift was a mad scramble for a guaranteed revenue stream for Blue Sky, Collision Course is practically the studio coming to its senses and crying as loudly and openly as it can for everyone propping it up to just let this series die.

Unsurprisingly, Collision Course is technically the wackiest entry in the Ice Age series – I mean, it has to be; as one can learn from Jason Voorhees, once you go to space it is impossible to look back.  But the hacky sitcom plots that Continental Drift managed to spend half of its runtime avoiding in order to become a bland but non-insulting animated kids film return with a vengeance here.  Yes, despite everybody supposedly racing off to find a way to avert the end of the world as we know it, The Herd are far more pre-occupied by trivial matters like: Manny and Ellie freaking out that Peaches doesn’t want to live with them anymore, Manny irrationally hating Julian cos overprotective father, finding a girlfriend for Sid, Diego and Whatsherface maybe wanting kids or not, and other such and such.

Ice Age: Collision CourseI’d say that this is the series totally giving up – since even the manic Scrat sequences in this one end up running out of ideas by the end of their second segment, when artificial gravity does a number on the fella – but that wouldn’t strictly be true now, would it?  Ice Age had given up as soon as the first one was out of the door.  Blue Sky clearly don’t care about this franchise, they’ve never cared about this as a franchise, even the brief sputters of life in Continental Drift are more out of self-preservation than legitimately caring.  Based on the lazy, derivative, soulless, pointless films that constitute everything this series has outputted after 2005, everybody who has ever touched it has seen it purely as the giant money springs required to keep the lights on and the funding for films they actually give a shit about rolling in.

So this begs the question: why Ice Age?  Why is Ice Age this giant successful mega-series that has clearly connected with people on an international level?  It’s most definitely not the prettiest of the animated crop, its cast is confoundingly large yet bewilderingly paper-thin so there’s no emotional connection to keep people coming back, its zany cartoony-ness thunder has been stolen by Illumination, its plots are openly brazenly hacky…  There is absolutely nothing that Ice Age does that isn’t done better elsewhere by other animated films, even in this age of focus on the international markets where slapstick comedy travels super easily.  So, why Ice Age?

That is genuinely a rhetorical question, in case you’re expecting an answer.  I sat through all five of these films within the span of 24 hours and I still have no clue why this series is seemingly so beloved.  Normally when a terrible, terrible franchise makes a tonne of money, there’s a clear reason why, even if it is stupid.  Michael Bay’s Transformers, for example, are awful, insulting films.  But they also appeal to that part of its target audience that wants to see giant robots which disguise themselves as shiny and chrome vehicles fight each other and tear shit up.  It’s not particularly good at that, and often thoroughly uninterested in actually doing it at all, but there’s still a tangible and semi-unique thrill there that can explain why it is so successful and retains an audience.  Bay knows, and specifically targets, his audience.

I can’t say the same for Ice Age.  It really does do nothing that other animated films, that are also super-mega successful, aren’t already doing.  And I know that people will point to parents dumping their “brats” at whatever cartoon is out that week in order to get some respite for two hours, but that doesn’t explain the series’ near-constant growth in the foreign markets that are keeping it alive.  So I guess the real question is: what will it take to kill Ice Age?  The only reason that we got Collision Course despite Continental Drift’s massive backslide in domestic takings was because the series put in its strongest foreign showing, and Hollywood’s obsession with the lucrative foreign market pretty much forms the backbone of all of their business plans now.  But at what point does the domestic hammering become too much to bear?  Collision Course barely broke $20 mil domestic in its opening weekend, and it’s almost certainly going to close having failed to break the $100 mil marker.  So is this where the notoriously resilient Ice Age series finally dies?

Because make no mistake, Ice Age needs to die.  Blue Sky Studios need to be putting their time and energies into films that they actually care about if they’re going to survive.  I’m not a massive fan of Horton Hears a Who!, Rio, or Epic, but watching them I saw a studio and a set of creative teams with pulses, who were trying.  With last year’s excellent Peanuts Movie, the studio had never been more alive and invested in what they were doing – probably because the Schulz estate would have shot them all if they weren’t, but hey ho – and they managed to create their first genuinely great film in 13 years as a result.  That’s what they need to do more of, they need to find stories that they are interested in.  Those stories are not Ice Age.  They never have been.

Callie Petch would like to reach out their hand.

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