There’s a fascinating duality to an early afternoon showing of former Pixar animator Peter Lepenotis’ The Nut Job. Prior to the lights going completely down and the numerous company logos running in front of the film, the audience is (most likely) treated to a viewing of The Lego Movie, in which Will Arnett voices a Lego Batman. In The Nut Job, Arnett voices a raspy squirrel named Surly, who rebels against a city park dictatorship as the other small mammals struggle to find food to store for the winter. By the end, we’re not sure Surly is the hero the park deserves, but we know he’s the one it needs right now.
In short, this movie is about Batman, a role Will Arnett was apparently born to voice. And more than a little about North Korea. It also has an animated Gangnam Style Psy in the credits. It is this combination of oddities that make The Nut Job as notably weird as it is forgettably flat.
When we meet Surly, he’s telling us through voiceover that life is hard out there for a park squirrel, taking care of yourself isn’t easy in the hustle and bustle of it all. We also learn that he’s been ostracized from the park’s community of animals, led by Raccoon (a raccoon voiced by Liam Neeson), Andie (a lady squirrel voiced by Katherine Heigl) and the heroic, albeit moronic Grayson (voiced by Brendan Fraser). His only friend is a mute rat named Buddy whose loyalty outweighs his wits.
The game is instantly afoot. Both Surly and the park community are trying to stash food for the winter. One of them is taking the free market approach (Surly is all about saving himself) while the other, Raccoon, portends to be a man of the people. Considering this film was heavily funded by a number of South Korean companies who sit mere miles from a wicked dictator whose leadership is built around the false notion that his government is a “People’s Republic,” guess who the villain is!
Not that there’s anything wrong with a message movie, you just don’t expect it to be quite so heavy when you’re watching the story of a few flatulent rodents and their quest to store nuts for the winter. Discussions arise, at odd lengths, about The Rule of Law and mob justice and selflessness being the resurrecting factor that can bring one back from figurative and literal banishment from a community. It might be the weirdest and most thoughtful movie to ever feature a romantic storyline for Katherine Heigl.
None of that makes it particularly interesting, it’s downright strange. By the close of the film, any adult mind is so flabbergasted at the odd complexity of the film’s political elements that the thought of animated Psy leading the credits doesn’t actually seem so out of place.
As a kid’s movie, it’s also still pretty weird. Are you ready to have conversations with your kids about why dictators are bad? You might have to. Then again, you’re also getting plenty of fart humor and a dog (voiced by Maya Rudolph) who tries to lick anything and everything. Kids will laugh and at 86 minutes, the won’t have too much trouble staying with it. At least in this Brendan Fraser-led movie about furry animals, everything is vibrantly animated and the energy is good. Let’s not go back to Furry Vengeance.
By the end of the experience, through all of the quizzical looks at the deep political nuances and the eye-rolling that followed the surface-level humor, it’s hard to place where The Nut Job fits amongst its contemporaries. It’s a simple-enough animated tale that kept the kids in their seats. But there’s nothing about it feels crafty. Again, it was a victim of the trailers that ran before it. Just as I couldn’t detach from the Will Arnett/Batman thing (although there’s a moment at the end of The Nut Job that really seals it), I couldn’t get the latest trailer for Laika’s The Boxtrolls out of my head. It showed off some of the intricate craftsmanship that goes into making stop-motion films. There is that kind of craftsmanship being exhibited in the realm of computer animation and cartoon storytelling. But none of that exists here. Weird as it may be with its dancing Korean pop star and all of its “nuts” wordplay, The Nut Job isn’t a tough one to crack. Like most actual nuts, it’s pretty bland.
The Upside: The animation is colorful and there’s one character (Buddy, the mute rat) who is sort of endearing.
The Downside: With its strangely adult themes and not-so-strange base-level humor, it’s not elevating past your average direct-to-DVD animated fare.
On the Side: The Nut Job is a feature adaptation of Peter Lepeniotis’ 2005 short Surly Squirrel, which won the audience award at the Palm Springs Film Festival.