The Ice Age mythology is getting way too complicated.
I don’t even know that I’m kidding about this. When I settled in for Ice Age: Collision Course — the fifth film in the franchise about a woolly mammoth (Ray Romano), saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary), and sloth (John Leguizamo) who are all still friends for some reason — I was surprised to find that I was expected to remember characters and story beats from the four previous films.
Except I had only seen the first two, and those came out in 2002 and 2006. So who was this weasel sheriff voiced by Simon Pegg, who seemed to preside over an underground realm filled with half-dinosaurs, half-birds? Peaches (Keke Palmer), the daughter of Manny the mammoth and his wife Ellie (Queen Latifah), who had gotten hitched in the last film I saw, was now old enough to have a fiancé herself? Diego the tiger not only has a girlfriend voiced by Jennifer Lopez but seems to be obliquely discussing fertility troubles with her? What was going on here?
The answer, as it turns out, is that Collision Course is mostly an uninteresting attempt to keep making Ice Age movies. Each movie piles on a few more characters, and the makers of the next film look at those characters, shrug, and decide to keep all of them around, while adding still more characters the next film will have to deal with. (This film’s main contributions appear to be an eternally youthful llama and a bunny voiced by Michael Strahan.)
If you don’t feel like sitting through all five parts of this increasingly unwieldy animated film series, here are, briefly, answers to five questions you may have about the Ice Age franchise.
1) Why do they keep making Ice Age movies?
This question is actually the easiest to answer of them all. This franchise makes loads of money overseas.
Here, take a look at this:
Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs — at $886.7 million worldwide, the franchise’s box office peak — was, for a time, the second most successful animated film ever made (behind Shrek 2). And Continental Drift didn’t quite match it but came close, with $877.2 million worldwide.
The crazy thing is that the fourth film was the weakest performer in the US and Canada, even as it tacked on another $25 million elsewhere. While the franchise seems to become more and more of a shrug domestically, it grows more popular overseas.
Granted, there’s probably a point at which Ice Age will make so little money in the US and Canada that it becomes pointless to make more of these movies. But we’re still likely a ways away from that. So long as Fox (and Blue Sky, the animation studio that makes the films) can persuade the actors to keep popping by every few years for a paycheck, there will be more Ice Age films.
2) Okay, but why are these movies so popular overseas?
Animation is always popular worldwide. Yes, there have been a few animated films that have done well in the US but not as much overseas, but for the most part, if an animated franchise is popular here — Toy Story, say, or Shrek — then it’s also popular overseas. The animated family comedy, generally, is less steeped in the culture of the country that produces it than other forms of comedy like, say, the romantic comedy.
What’s remarkable is the degree to which Ice Age is popular overseas. Continental Drift made just over 18 percent of its box office total in the US and Canada, which is incredibly low. (Much more common is somewhere between 30 and 40 percent.) So what’s driving this disparity?
Well, of all of the big animated franchises, Ice Age is perhaps the one that’s most defined by its action sequences. Yes, it has recurring characters fans presumably know and love, but it always sends those characters through an elaborate collection of roller coaster rides and other adventures. The defining hallmark of the franchise is constant, kinetic motion, and that plays well around the world.
Plus, the series has a secret weapon in Scrat, the rodent-like creature whose quest for an acorn has now spanned all five films. (In this latest one, he chases the acorn into outer space.) Scrat is pretty consistently the best part of every film, and his antics are instantly recognizable. He wants the acorn, and he’ll do anything to get it. Who can’t relate?
And Scrat himself has a secret weapon: He doesn’t talk. A wordless, entirely comedic performer who engages in slapstick is exactly the sort of thing that travels well overseas. Comedy is usually heavily dialogue-driven, which is why it’s so hard to export. Scrat doesn’t have that problem.
3) What are the defining traits of an Ice Age movie?
As I stated above, the movies are possessed of a ridiculous amount of energy and frantic movement. In one sequence in Collision Course, Pegg’s character leaps around in midair to protect a dinosaur egg while singing, and it’s kind of brilliant, even if it has nothing to do with anything.
The characters bounce around prehistoric landscapes like they’re Looney Tunes or video game characters, and their passion for things like, say, extreme sports seem to reflect the 2002 time period in which the original film was made.
But the franchise also increasingly embraces its complicated history. If a character was even a slight hit in a previous film, he or she will probably turn up in future films, which leads to a 90-minute movie with an ensemble cast that’s seriously a couple of dozen characters deep.
I could be generous and say that the movies are about the building of a community. After all, the first (and still best) movie was about how the three animals at the story’s center were all loners until they became friends, and as they accumulate more hangers-on, the films could become about how groups of friends tend to find more friends.
But I really don’t think that’s what’s going on here. I think the Ice Age movies just like having lots of celebrities in their voice casts.
4) So what’s this one about?
There’s a meteor streaking toward the Earth, as meteors do every 100 million years. The last one wiped out the dinosaurs. (We’ll get back to the math problems here in a moment.) So the characters have to figure out a way to stop a meteor when they’re, y’know, prehistoric mammals (albeit ones that can talk and have a comprehensive knowledge of modern pop music).
Meanwhile, Manny and Ellie are worried about sending Peaches off to her new life with her fiancé, Julian. Also meanwhile, Buck the weasel (Pegg’s character) has been pursued to the earth’s surface by the half-dinosaur, half-birds, who want to bring about the end of the world for reasons even they acknowledge are stupid. Meanwhile meanwhile, Sid the sloth is looking for love. Meanwhilst, eternal youth becomes a plot point very late in the movie. Erstwhile, the tigers talk about having kids for a bit. Meanwhile meanwhile meanwhile, Scrat tries to get the acorn.
Anyway, what I’m saying is they all try to stop the meteor while dealing with personal crises. So it’s reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s work.
5) Do the Ice Age movies take place during the actual Ice Age?
All of the previous movies — okay, the two I’ve seen — offer no evidence that they take place in any other era. But this one offers an intriguing hint that the actual timeline for these films is the very far future.
Look back at that timeline for the meteor. It arrives every 100 million years, thanks to deposits of various magnetic metals in the Earth’s surface that also apparently keep very rigid timetables. And yet the last one bumped off the dinosaurs, which happened just 65 million years before our present day, give or take. Also, Buck discovers the meteor exists thanks to ancient tablets, which record a prophecy of its arrival and are found in a suspiciously human-looking underground temple.
So does Ice Age: Collision Course take place 35 million years in the future, perhaps suggesting we are doomed to live out endless cycles of mammalian death and rebirth, until we finally get things right?
I don’t know — but it would explain why they know all our pop songs, that’s for sure.
Ice Age: Collision Course is playing in theaters across the country. I hope they make more Ice Age movies, because I enjoyed writing this review.