By the time a series of films - any series of films - gets to number four, chances are whatever qualities have led it that far have by now been completely left by the wayside, overcome by the cash-register-obsessed diminishing-return mentality of Hollywood studios. Yet there is always an exception to the rule and the Ice Age franchise reaches its fourth instalment without losing its many charms, even if it doesn't necessarily improve on the splendid third episode (Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, 2009). The pre-historic odd-couple critters created by Chris Wedge at the Fox-owned computer animation studios Blue Sky can no longer be seen as poor cousins to Pixar and Dreamworks' blockbuster creations, having become the foundation on which Fox's animation efforts  have been built.

     The combination of family-friendly plot and nonsensical sight gags straight out of Warner Bros. territory have made the Ice Age series unusually long-lasting in its own right, progressively improving on the cheerful first episode; this fourth feature follows the usual blithe disregard for actual historical or scientific references, in favour of another ode to the importance of family, suggesting the whole series is by now a sort of anthropomorphized version of The Flintstones. In Ice Age 4: Continental Drift, Manny the mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano) has to deal with the teenage tantrums of his daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer), born at the end of the previous instalment, while dimwitted sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) gets saddled with his toothless, curmudgeonly grandmother (a hilarious Wanda Sykes stealing the show). All of this takes place while the continental drift gets going through the efforts of Scrat's endless quest for the ultimate acorn, triggered in the film's hilariously deadpan opening.

     Just like the third film was enlivened by the delirious performance of Simon Pegg as one-eyed wild weasel Buck, number 4 gets a wonderfully low-key Peter Dinklage as the fearsome primate pirate Captain Gutt, putting the film on the road to take in both Pirates of the Caribbean and Moby Dick while the attempt to reunite the separated families reminds both of the initial Ice Age film and of the Steven Spielberg-produced Land Before Time series of the 1980s. It's a snazzy, fast-moving, over-before-you-know-it riot of pitch-perfect sight gags and effortlessly, falsely casual story-telling, even if (as is the wont for most contemporary animations) everything does sag a little bit in the middle and the need to keep it family-friendly keeps it just below the free-for-all anarchy it's always itching to get to. Still, that's precisely the bullseye sweet-spot the Ice Age films have specialised in hitting, and there's really not much to complain about when the result is so enjoyable and fun.

Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Seann William Scott, Josh Peck, Peter Dinklage, Wanda Sykes; Jennifer Lopez; Queen Latifah.

Directors, Steve Martino, Michael Thurmeier; screenplay, Michael Berg, Jason Fuchs, from a story by Mr. Berg and Lori Forte; cinematography, Renato Falcão (colour by Deluxe, widescreen); music, John Powell; art director, Nash Dunnigan; character design, Peter de Sève; editors, James C. Palumbo, David Ian Salter; producers, Ms. Forte, John C. Donkin (Blue Sky Studios for Twentieth Century-Fox Animation), USA, 2012, 88 minutes. 

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 1, Lisbon, June 25th 2012.


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