Review: ‘Ice Age: Continental Drift’ and the Divide Between Feel-Good Family Fun and Surreal, Spectral Nightmares
Flash forward twenty years. A young couple is just getting to know each other and, as is part of normal mating procedures, they are discussing their favorite bits of pop culture, musical preferences and favorite books and important childhood games or puzzles or something. And movies, of course movies.
“I remember this movie I saw when I was a kid. I’ve never met anyone else who has seen it. It was so weird!” she says. “There were like monkey pirates and some slutty teenage wooly mammoth and, I think, a creepy subplot with sirens? Like, icky fish things that turned into sexy versions of whoever was looking at them, even that evil monkey pirate? And the Earth was melting? And a big whale and a lot of violence and even some guinea pig things that were super into Braveheart? I have no idea if this movie even exists, really, but it also had a bunch of family-friendly messages that were way too on-the-nose. I don’t know, maybe it was like a special I saw on television? It was animated?”
“No,” he says, “that was Ice Age: Continental Drift, that was a big studio release. It was, like, a franchise.”
“No way,” she says. Yes way, fictional future girl. Yes in a big way.
Surely, the Ice Age franchise has already taken tremendous liberties with the history of the Earth. After all, this is a series that imagines that the Ice Age (including its messy end), the Triassic and Jurassic Periods, and the formation of the world’s current continents all take place during the lifetimes of a single group of animals, but for their latest outing, the Ice Age franchise has shed absolutely any delusions it has about being rooted in anything even remotely resembling reality. It’s bonkers crazy, and kids will probably love it, and parents will certainly find some entertainment value in it, mainly because it’s hard to believe that this kind of loony film exists in a post-Pixar world (though its animation is certainly detailed and pleasing to behold).
The fourth film in the franchise kicks off amusingly enough, thanks to an opening sequence that details silly old saber-toothed squirrel Scrat (Chris Wedge) again destroying the world as we know it while in pursuit of his beloved acorn (he already helped kickstart the end of the actual Ice Age in the second film through similar hijinks). This time around, Scrat and his acorn crack a massive fissure in the continental plate, which rapidly spreads, slicing itself up until the land mass becomes the individual continents we know today.
Oblivious to yet another cataclysmic continental shake-up, our Ice Age heroes, Manny the mammoth (Ray Romano), Diego the saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary), and Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo), live together amongst a motley crew of prehistoric animals (including Manny’s wife and daughter). Their existence is mildly upended by typical domestic troubles – Sid’s loser family shows up after previously abandoning him, only to saddle him with his apparently demented Granny (Wanda Sykes), and Manny is struggling with teenage Peaches (Keke Palmer) and her desire to be an independent young lady – but all that is about to change with the disastrous splits and an fast-approaching wall of land that’s about to eat up their neighborhood.
Shoe-horned in amongst all the impending doom are a series of almost laughably standard and on-the-nose lessons about family and love (Manny and Peaches’ relationship, while relatable, is still the stuff of TV movies), piled on so thick and so early on that it would appear that Ice Age: Continental Drift is just going for the family vote and not trying anything new in service to its feel-good messages. We get it. Be nice to your parents. Let your kids spread their wings. Honor your friends. Repeat.
Yet, somewhere around the film’s middle mark, Ice Age: Continental Drift goes spectacularly nutty cuckoo, with our heroes (separated from everyone else by, duh, land moving around) captured by a surly crew of animal pirates (all of them predecessors to existing animals, like monkeys and kangaroos and rabbits), who pillage the swirling and changing ocean blue thanks to a trusty ship made entirely out of ice. It’s not just that this rag-tag group is so weird and so jarring that makes Continental Drift feel so strange, it’s that their leader, Captain Gutt (wickedly voiced by Peter Dinklage), is a vile trickster who is not just bent on getting revenge on Manny, Diego, and Sid after they slip through his claws, it’s that he genuinely wants to hurt them.
While Continental Drift is rated PG (for mild rude humor and action/peril), it’s eye-opening just how violent the film is willing to go, and just how darkly Gutt has been crafted. Moreover, the introduction of Gutt, his crew, and their aims is such a strange change from the gentle, family-centric world that Ellie and Peaches occupy (and that Manny, Diego, and Sid are trying to get back to) that Ice Age: Continental Drift is prone to inducing serious whiplash in its audience. Oh, and all that weird stuff? The sexy sirens and the Braveheart references and the ditzy teen mammoths? That all happens, and it’s deeply weird and would be distracting if it wasn’t so damn impossible to stop watching. Nightmarish in its oddness, cuddly in its sweetness, Ice Age: Continental Drift is nearly inscrutable, bizarre, and one heck of a strange watch.
The Upside: Lovely animation, some very amusing sequences, over-the-top but still sweet messages and lessons about family and growing up.
The Downside: Violent, sociopathic monkey pirates and everything that goes with that.
On the Side: Rapper Drake voices Peaches’ asshole love interest, Ethan, and you better believe that his other career comes into play during the film’s closing credit song.