Let's immediately make one thing clear about the B grade for Ice Age: Continental Drift: The difference between mild endorsement and a dismissive "ehh" technically isn't part of the movie.
It's the 5-minute short subject preceding Continental Drift, a wordless gem titled The Longest Daycare starring Maggie Simpson, the binky-sucking spawn of Homer and Marge. Maggie gets dropped off at Ayn Rand School for Tots, goes through a spoof of homeland security, past the magical "gifted" section and takes her place in the dumpy "nothing special" area.
Another "nothing special" kid is Gerald, a unibrowed delinquent smashing butterflies for wall art. Maggie is horrified, and begins devising a plan to protect a caterpillar from a similar post-cocoon fate. The sight gags and puns come at a pace demanding another viewing (or two) to catch them all. The Longest Daycare leaves us laughing and wishing for a Simpsons Movie sequel.
That's a tough act to follow. It doesn't help that Continental Drift begins with a slightly altered version of an Ice Age cartoon starring the prehistoric squirrel Scrat that has circulated for two years. It is obvious that Scrat's Continental Crack-Up is prologue to the Big Thaw catastrophe now facing Manny the woolly mammoth and his pals. But after three hits Blue Sky Studios owes moviegoers more than sameness for starters.
Manny (voice of Ray Romano) is already dealing with teenage daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer) and her desire to run with the wrong herd of mammoths, led by dreamy Ethan (Drake). No sooner does Peaches wish Manny weren't her father, the Earth's geological plates begin rapidly shifting, creating a tectonic disaster that is masterfully animated. Glaciers tumble, earthquakes rumble and sheer cliffs advance like walls of a Death Star trash compactor.
One glacier drifts out to sea, carrying Manny, Diego the sabertooth tiger (Denis Leary), Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo) and a funny new cast addition, Wanda Sykes as Sid's dotty Granny. They're safe from the eruption but Peaches and her mother Ellie (Queen Latifah) are stranded with hundreds of refugees. Manny swears he'll return to save them.
First they'll deal with uncooperative tides, shape-shifting sirens, and Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), a gnarly ape and his scurvy crew aboard an iceberg galleon. Gutt is a wonderful villain, something the franchise has lacked, and even performs an original musical number — an Ice Age first, if I'm not mistaken. Dinklage has a sinister voice, and a subtle way of expressing the character's sillier moments.
As usual, Sid's hyperactive shenanigans get the most laughs and Scrat continues his scrambling quest for acorns while Manny's issues play as interesting as Romano sounds. Continental Drift is just another formulaic moneymaker for a franchise in slow creative thaw.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.