SPOILER WARNING: Do not read this if you haven’t seen the film. Significant plot details and themes will be discussed here.
It’s so strange going back to the first Ice Age film. What is now a multifilm franchise about wacky prehistoric adventures was once a relatively small, intimate and quirky little movie made by a fledgling studio doing its first feature film. Not that I begrudge Blue Sky their subsequent success. They’re a distant third to Pixar and DreamWorks in the CGI family animation field, but they have an interesting, exaggerated style all their own that suits both these films, their adaptation of Horton Hears A Who, and the two films based off the work of children’s author William Joyce (Robots, Epic). And I enjoyed the second and third Ice Age films (not planning on seeing Continental Drift), especially since they focus on further developing and changing the characters rather than just staying stuck in a rut. Dawn of the Dinosaurs is particularly fun in its wild, imaginative set pieces. Still, it’s nice to remember when their films didn’t have to be quite so loud, busy and stuffed with celebrity voice actors in every single role.
In all honesty, there’s little that’s truly special about the basic story and structure of the film. It’s basically Three Men and a Baby crossed with 3 Godfathers and starring animated, prehistoric animals. But to paraphrase Roger Ebert for a moment, a movie’s not about the story, but about how it tells it. The comic trio that develops in the film-Manny the mamoth, Sid the Sloth, and Diego the saber-toothed tiger-leads to a lot of wonderful moments and chemistry. Diego is particularly interesting since he starts out as a villain with ulterior motives, but slowly comes to care for both the other animals and the human baby. The sacrifice he makes at the end of the film (and the subsequent resurrection) is truly touching for this reason. Manny has a tragic backstory that we only learn later in a haunting sequence involving moving cave paintings (it reminds me more than a little of a similar scene in The Prince of Egypt involving hieroglyphics), and it says a lot about his true character that he’s so willing to return this baby despite what the humans have done to him. Even Sid, the goofball of the group, gets sympathy because his family apparently ditches him often.
The actors in the film are mostly celebrities, true, but they’re well cast for their unique qualities and vocal tics. Ray Romano already has an amusing, interesting voice to listen to, so his grumpy cynicism hiding a heart of gold fits Manny, and his expert comic timing shines through. John Leguizamo actually manages to create a unique, funny voice for Sid instead of just coasting, and he gets a lot of the funnier line deliveries as a result. Denis Leary has arguably the most interesting character shifts to play as Diego, and his sarcastic persona fits the tiger in all the moods he has to evoke. The rest of the cast is filled out well: voice acting veteran Tara Strong provides cute, funny noises for the baby, Goran Visnjic brings a tough, hard quality to the villainous tiger Soto, Diedrich Bader, Jack Black and Alan Tudyk are the other, more comic relief tigers, and there are fun small bits from the likes of Stephen Root, Cedric the Entertainer and Jane Krakowski.
Technically, I suppose the film has aged. The textures and environments are less detailed and intricate, and aside from the baby, the humans aren’t terribly convincing. But oddly, I feel like that actually fits the story. There’s some action and excitement, but it’s more mild in comparison to the later films. The character animation itself is also still really good, especially the Looney Tunes-inspired actions of the beloved saber-tooth squirrel Scrat (voiced by director Chris Wedge). Musically, David Newman provides a fine score, especially the jaunty opening travel music, the aforementioned cave painting scene, and the more exciting moments. There’s one musical montage, but the song (Send Me On My Way by Rusted Root) fits the mood of the film and sequence.
Ice Age is not a masterpiece by any stretch, but even 12 years on, it’s an amusing, sometimes touching delight. Despite the now-apparent technical limitations, I think it will stand the test of time just as well as, say, the early PIxar or DreamWorks efforts. Hopefully future generations of children and their parents will be able to enjoy it together.