The strangest herd of the Ice Age is still somewhat together - the lonely mammoth Manny has become a family man and together with Ellie is raising their daughter Peaches, who has become an unruly teenager. Sid, the somewhat dimwitted, but lovable sloth gets a visit from his long-lost family, who nearly run over his old friend, the sabre-toothed tiger Diego - but they only leave his dotty grandma with him and quickly take off again. While he, Ellie and Manny are figuring out what to do with the ancient sloth lady, earthquakes start to shake the land and the ground begins to move and break off, separating Manny, Sid and Diego from the rest of the herd on an ice floe. Caught in the current, they fail to reach land again and soon have bigger problems than that...
Now over a decade ago in 2002, a new player had entered the hard embattled market of computer-animated movies: Blue Sky Studios, who were backed by 20th Century Fox. The studio wanted to counteract against their traditionally animated boxoffice failures Anastasia and Titan A.E. by becoming a real competitor to Pixar and Dreamworks Animation. The first cinema outing of the former special-effects specialists was called Ice Age and proved to be a surprising financial and critical success. The basic premise of a prehistoric road movie featuring a band of misfit animals ranging from mammoth and tiger to sloth, garnished with the antics of a primeval squirrel-like creature had some small faults, but worked amazingly well.
A sequel was not immediately planned, but after the success of their next movie, Robots, Blue Sky once again revived the concept of their debut and produced The Meltdown in 2006, which did not suffer the usual symptoms of a sequel, but managed to be even better than the original. With a much improved plot and animation, not as much pathos as before and a bunch of surprisingly interesting new characters the second movie was a great continuation of the adventures of the prehistoric heroes. Only three years later sequel number three arrived as Dawn of the Dinosaurs and in spite of the titular new additional creatures, the franchise had not yet lost its magic. The question was how long the filmmakers would be able to come up with fresh and interesting ideas -but in the end it turned out that the magic number was three.
After a trio of relatively original stories there was not much left to tell the audience without the danger of repeating previous ideas, but 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios had decided to continue the lucrative franchise with a fourth movie. Initially a concept was pitched that had the four main characters plus Scrat, the prehistoric squirrel, frozen in the past and thawed in the present, but this was unfortunately abandoned in favour of a more traditional plot which basically resembles the first two movies. After a break from the "running from nature theme" in Dawn of the Dinosaurs this time it's back in full force, sending the characters on to another long journey by separating the original trio of Manny, Sid and Diego from Manny's family by way of a continental breakup.
Handled right, this story could have been successful, but the screenwriters made some disappointing decisions. Most surprising is that the movie was written by Michael Berg, one of the original writers of the first and third Ice Age installments, who also conceived the story together with Lori Forte, the producer of all four movies and one of the originators of the franchise. Berg had an unlikely collaborator: the actor and first-time author Jason Fuchs, who was for some reason chosen by Fox to work on the screenplay.
Which one of the two authors contributed to the many problems of the script is not really distinguishable, but the movie leaves the impression of a large group effort gone wrong. The two directors are also old hands at Blue Sky - Steven Martino has been around since the production of Robots and Mike Thurmeier was the lead animator of the first movie back in 2002, supervising animator of The Meltdown and Co-Director of Dawn on the Dinosaurs. The original directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha had unfortunately left the franchise, which could account for the dramatic change of tone in the fourth movie.
One of the shortcomings of Continental Drift is that the plot seems to have been constructed around a couple of major action sequences, another problem is that the story has virtually nothing new to offer. The concept of having to flee from a natural disaster might be one of the basic concepts of the franchise, but the third movie had successfully proven that the premise was not really needed anymore. Unfortunately the return to the old formula lacked the originality the three previous movies had and so the plot was no more than a simple rehash of the former stories. The introduction of the nautical element could have prevented this, but with the addition of prehistoric pirates, in a blatant attempt to compete with Aardman's The Pirates!, made the story even more ludicrous.
Other elements of the plot have nothing much better to offer - a parent-teenager family drama with Ellie and her daughter Peaches wants to be one of the several moral message of the movie, but fails to succeed like the lovestory between Diego and Shira, which also seems to have been shoehorned into the story at the last minute. The plot takes itself much to serious - while the first three movies were a clever mix of satire and parody, Continental Drift wants to be an earnest adventure-drama, but fails to counterbalance the serious story with the particular brand of humour the predecessors were famous for. The fun has been literally taken out of the story and together with the dramatic life-or-death-story, a surprising amount of violence was introduced. Many of the action scenes are also pretty heavy fight scenes, in which the protagonists get kicked and slapped around like never before. Of course in the end no one gets really hurt or even killed, but the level of violence, which is not even particularly cartoonish, is very uncharacteristic for the franchise.
Real highlights are few and far between in Continental Drift, only a couple of moments are really working. This is mainly the fault of the very simple story, which is extremely predictable and sometimes even gives the plot away before it happens - the script does not even make the remotest effort to create real surprises. The complete lack of well-written dialogue, one of the major trademarks of the previous movies, is also a major disappointment - crisp and funny lines are absent and lots of redundant, inane chatter are the norm in this movie. The dialogue leaves the impression that it was written for pre-schoolers, even for older children the dullness in the texts is too much and even groan-inducing for adults.
Consequently the characters are only shadows of their former selves. The old-established herd of Manny, the grumpy mammoth, his girlfriend Ellie, introduced in the second movie, the lazy and stupid sloth Sid and the sabre-toothed tiger Diego are now joined for the first time by Mannys and Ellies daughter Peaches, increasing the size of the main cast from three to five. This would actually have been fine, if the movie would not have been very overcrowded with many other secondary characters - there are also Ellie's oppossum "brothers" Crash and Eddie, who are upstaged by Peaches' friend Louis and a whole gang of other mammoth youths she wants to hang out with. About the only successful character is Sids grandmother, who is sadly underused, but has some of the best scenes of the movie.
That is not the end of the cast by a long shot, because with even more characters come more problems: as if this already large collection of protagonists was not enough, the screenwriters tried to squeeze another half-dozen pirates into the plot. Led by a wannabe-ferocious ape-captain with the uninventive name Gutt (which is actually explained explicitly in the dialogue), the pirates seem to be an attempt to bring some fun for the youngest audience members into the movie. The only thing they are good for is a lot of extremely silly, but not very funny slapstick, which gets very tired after the first few minutes and becomes downright painful when they actually start to sing a kid-friendly shanty. The only serious member of the crew, the sabre-toothed white tigress Shira, functions mainly as a sort of love interest for Diego. The pirate crew takes up a surprisingly large amount of screen time, which the other characters would have sorely needed.
The secret star of the movie is, of course, still Scrat, the long-suffering prehistoric squirrel-rat. Once again he is allowed to set the plot into motion by kicking off global continental movements. This scienctific silliness has been the heart of the franchise since day one and was a perfect fit for the previous three movies, but with the more serious and dramatic plot of Continental Drift, Scrat's antics have become out of place. Even if he has now been better integrated into the story and meets the main characters more frequently, his appearances seem oddly disconnected from the plot. But in the end it is Scrat who is allowed to steal the show with a fantastic final scene, which actually looks like it was conceived as a short film and only later added to the movie.
The actors do their best with the weak screenplay, but are not able to recreate the satirical wit of their characters from the previous movies. Ray Romano, John Leguizamo and Denis Leary as Manny, Sid and Diego together with their new castmates Queen Latifah as Ellie and the singer Keke Palmer as Peaches make up a wonderful cast, but have so little chance to sparkle that they seem to have really phoned their parts in this time. The main characters are so completely overwhelmed by the mass of new arrivals that Continental Drift does not even seem to be their own movie anymore. Jennifer Lopez as the white tigress Shira seems to have more dialogue than Ellie and Peaches together while Peter Dinklage as the pirate captain Gutt also tries to upstage the regulars, but also fails because his voice is simply not ferocious enough.
The remaining members of the oversized cast sometimes only have a few lines in the whole movie - especially long-established characters like Seann William Scott's and Josh Peck's Crash and Eddie are sadly wasted. Only Wanda Sykes as Sid's dotty grandma really shines in very few scenes and has some great dialogue together with John Leguizamo. The lack of interaction between the actors, who as usual have recorded their dialogue seperately, has never been as apparent as in Continental Drift. The characters sound flat and uninspired - there is much shouting and screaming involved, but it all sounds much too artifical and unspontaneous, especially in comparison with the previous Ice Age installments.
Despite the major flaws of the screenplay, Continental Drift manages to be visually stunning. Blue Sky Studios have come a long way from the somewhat clunky-looking first movie and have now caught up with the competitors in almost every discipline, but while the animation looks really gorgeous, this time it is mainly a case of "been there, done that". The background scenery has nothing particularly exciting to offer and even the new sea environment seems dull and uninspired. Instead a lot of 3D action sequences are offered, which come up all to regularly and let the plot abruptly grind to a halt - the scenes are amazing and exciting for themselves, but with the predictability of the plot their outcome can often be seen way in advance, making them basically superfluous.
The character design has been much improved and the cartoonish look of the protagonists had been slowly dialed back since the first movie, so that the unique style is still apparent, but has been steadily developed. Especially the fur and hair department has achieved a surprising reality, which makes the characters extremely convincing, but still manage to be cute and fluffy at the same time - no doubt with an eye on the marketing of plush toys. The abundance of different species is astonishing, but unfortunately serves only as background scenery in a few sequences, despite a very high technical, design and research effort gone into it.
The music was composed once again by John Powell, who had taken over from David Newman since the second film of the franchise. Powell, who is actually more known for his wonderful work on the movies from Dreamworks Animation, provides a full-blown orchestral score, which unfortunately takes itself as serious as the movie itself, losing a lot of the playfulness of the previous movies. Surprising for John Powell the score also lacks his usual strong melodies, instead relying mostly on standard action-movie-cues, which sound exciting, but are nothing really special - the composer does not even use much of his own themes from the last two movies.
Only very infrequently the score breaks out of its bombastic orchestral sound and switches to a few selections of jazzy and latin tunes, but the pirates are very predictably accompanied by accordeons, leading into an extremely silly and not very original shanty. There are a couple of other unobtrusive pop tunes used throughout the movie, but the song sung by the cast during the closing credits is simply a terrible effort - the actors can sing, but the song itself is so badly written that it's downright embarassing.
There is no question that Continental Drift was at least a financial success, but everbody looking for the same quirky, humorous and intelligent story with well-developed characters like in the three previous movies will be sorely disappointed. With its fourth outing, the Ice Age franchise has been degraded to simple kids and teenie entertainment and lost all its appeal for an older audience. Released in June and July 2012 all over the world, the movie did reasonably well at the American boxoffice, but became especially successful overseas, netting nearly 900 Million Dollars compared to only about 160 Million in the USA - a good result for the studio considering the movie was made for under 100 Million Dollars.
Despite the financial success, Continental Drift was heavily, but legitimately criticized for failing to do what the franchise up to now did best: telling a story which is both entertaining for children and adults and mixing simple humour with intelligent satire and parody. Without these elements, the fourth Ice Age installment had become just another mindless computer-generated action adventure with replacable characters and humour at the lowest possible level. There are some rumours about a fifth movie - hopefully Blue Sky will be able to turn the franchise around and return to its roots, otherwise Continental Drift would be a very disappointing finale of the series.
After the summer release of Ice Age: Continental Drift, the first home video release came in Germany at the end of November, while England and America had to wait until mid-December. The movie was released in three different flavours - a standalone DVD with the 2D version, a 2D Blu-Ray and a 3D Blu-Ray, which in most countries including Germany also includes the DVD and 2D Blu-Ray. As usual, I had opted for the DVD and after having imported the first three movies from the USA, this time I have chosen the German release because it was released first and was the most inexpensive alternative.
Technically, the German DVD of Ice Age: Continental Draft reviewed in this article is completely faultless with a perfect representation of the movie. Some of the extras from the Blu-Ray have been left off, but not due to size constraints - the dual-layer-disc is nearly half empty and the inclusion of at least some of the featurettes would have been no problem. Compared to the previous three DVDs of the Ice Age franchise, this release is the worst yet in the extras department, but the technical quality is still at the highest level.