"I've got four words for you… Thing-a-ma-boobie."
January is a notorious dumping ground for films that studios either don't want to or don't know how to market, usually because they're unimaginative reheated dreck. The last animated film released in January was Disney's 3D conversion of Beauty and the Beast in 2011, but you have to go all the way back to 2008 to find the last original animated film, the Veggie Tales feature film The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything, released during this dead period. Following the less than lackluster performance of Fox's Walking With Dinosaurs in December, it seemed like releasing any family film in the wake of Disney's Frozen was a dicey proposition at best, but Open Road's first in house animated film The Nut Job managed to buck the trend and pull in a $20 million opening weekend.
So is the film really that good or is it just something different for parents who don't want to be dragged to see Frozen for the third or fourth time? Read on to find out...
Surly Squirrel (Will Arnett) is a bit of a rebel. He's an outcast from the main group of park animals headed by Raccoon (Liam Neeson) who try to stick together to gather food for the winter. With no one by his side except his mute best friend Buddy the mouse, he plans to steal nuts from a nut cart set up just outside the park they live in, but Raccoon sends his two best squirrels Grayson (Brendan Fraser) and Andie (Katherine Heigl) to get the nuts off the cart before Surly can. A series of events lead to the cart exploding the large oak tree where the animals food is stored, and Surly finds himself banished from the park forever.
The cart was manned by a couple of goons that have now moved into a nut shop right next door to a bank they're planning to rob with their newly paroled boss King (Stephen Lang). When Surly discovers the nut shop, he plans to break in and steal enough nuts to last him the whole winter, but things are further complicated when Raccoon sends Grayson and Andie out for food and they discover Surly and his plan. Will Surly set aside his hard feelings and work with the park animals to boost the nuts, or will he selfishly keep them all to himself? And more importantly, will they be able to steal any nuts at all, since the goons plan to use the nuts as decoys for the money they're going to steal from the bank?
Confused? You're not alone. The major problem with The Nut Job is that for a film aimed squarely at the under ten set, it's got a more complicated plot than The Godfather and enough confusing double crosses to pad out several Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. I marveled at how confusing the film was, particularly considering it's target audience, and couldn't help but chalk it up to either poor planning or over planning. The film's director and co-writer Peter Lepeniotis made a short film titled Surly Squirrel back in 2005, so my guess is that this was a padded out version of that short, and in padding it to feature length, he added so many convoluted betrayals and counter-betrayals that wouldn't feel out of place in a real heist movie.
I admire aspects of the film, in particular the dual nature of the plot that has both the animals and humans planning concurrent heists, and the way that the dialogue is overlapped between the humans and animals as they execute their plans was a clever, if underused conceit. I likewise admired the film's score by Paul Intson which recalled the old Looney Tunes shorts. The automobiles and architecture also suggested that the film was set in the past, likely the 1950s or early 1960s, and it was a nice change of pace from the typical children's film, though nothing interesting was done with this concept, and the absurdly incongruous use of the omnipresent ear worm "Gangnam Style" only further muddled the decision to set the film in the past.
The voice cast was a mixed bag of odd celebrity stunt casting that either paid off, particularly Arnett and Maya Rudolph, as an overly friendly dog, or didn't at all. Brendan Fraser pitched his manic performance for a totally different film, much like he did in last year's Escape From Planet Earth, and to say that Neeson phoned in his performance is an understatement. The plethora of non-celebrity voice actors fared much better than the big name stars, and honestly did much more memorable work than their co-stars who were likely getting paid ten times as much.
The overall design of the film was nice and comforting to look at, but had no edge to it whatsoever. It's certainly not hard for even a mid-grade animated feature to look better than the animated features that came out even a decade ago, but without anything to distinguish the look of the film, it will fade from your memory as quickly as it entered. The absolutely inexplicable credits dance sequence set to "Gangnam Style," complete with an animated Psy, was baffling, and all of the credits to Korean animators and animation houses made it make more sense, but contextually it was a downright head scratcher. They certainly knew well enough to send the kids out of the theater on a high note, and since they likely won't be bothered by its startling incongruity, I suppose that's all that matters.
I know that your kids have probably dragged you to see Frozen several times now, or at least tried to, but it's a much better bet than this film. The Nut Job breaks no new ground and will end up being a mild distraction for 85 minutes, but if your kids are obsessed with woodland creatures pulling off a heist, better to show them the much more imaginative Over the Hedge than shell out a bunch of money for this film. It wasn't terrible, but that seems to be all that films like this strive for anymore as there's no love or care put into its making. If you can catch it at a low price matinee or even a discount theater, it will be a worthwhile endeavor, but don't spend more than $5 a ticket seeing it. Why pay premium prices for discount entertainment?
GO Rating: 2/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]