Ice Age

(2002) ** 1/2 Pg
81 min. 20th Century Fox. Directors: Mark Baldo (II), Jan Carlee, Chris Wedge. Cast: Kristen Johnston, Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Goran Visnjic.

Sizing up fox's new animated entry Ice Age, it's hard not to think about the no-brainer formula fueling the recent, abundant output of animated kiddie flicks. Though each film has its own spin, the basic schema of epic spectacle, comedy stars (of big or small screen), and precocious talking animals, is now fossilized. Following on the heels of the dueling releases Shrek (DreamWorks) and Monsters, Inc. (from Pixar and Disney), Fox's latest (and successful) bid to be taken seriously in animation coincidentally (or not) blends elements of each.

Here, the epic spectacle evolves out of the frozen landscape of 20,000 years ago, on the brink of the ice age. The comedy stars are Ray Romano as a morose wooly mammoth and Denis Leary as a saber-toothed tiger (Goran Visnjic, Cedric the Entertainer, and Steven Root also lend voices). Foremost among the mouthy animals is John Leguizamo as a sloth named Sid, though a nonlexical part-squirrel, part-rat named Scrat (sounds provided by co-director Wedge) almost steals the movie from him.

The plot lopes along not unlike Romano's mammoth, with the occasional abrupt transition, but mostly smoothed out by the respective comic relief of Sid and Scrat. In one unusual diversion from conventional wisdom, the film lacks for female voices, perhaps to underscore that the world these characters know is doomed to extinction. Instead, Wedge and Saldanha opt for the soft touch of the baby the heroes are escorting to safety (while stalked by saber-toothed tigers even less friendly than Leary's).

On the whole, the enterprise succeeds in its humble ambitions. If not as heartfelt as it wants to be, Ice Age's computer animation is quite fine, the story tried-and-truly kid-friendly, and the jokes smile-worthy.

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