In an unscientific survey of the moviegoing public, conducted by people who wish to make money, parents facing a three-day weekend were found to be a particularly vulnerable subset. During the early weeks of summer, say, Fourth of July weekend, they are at their weakest. Labor Day is only a distant promise. It's hot. Typically, at least one member of the family is feeling fragile in regard to fireworks. Movies are a refuge, and this subset one of considerable size will take their children to see anything.
Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, is the very definition of "anything," although in this case, since the movie is being released in 3-D, it's a more expensive anything. It is the third in a series of stories revolving around a mammoth named Manny (Ray Romano) and his friends Diego the saber-toothed cat (Denis Leary) and Sid (John Leguizamo). Sid is a sloth, although a parent undereducated in the Ice Age franchise could be forgiven for spending the first half-hour of the movie mystified as to what this ugly thing is supposed to be. In a sitcom, which is really what Dawn of the Dinosaurs most resembles, Sid would be the obnoxious neighbor who drops by all the time.
Manny, Diego and Sid have been friends since at least 2002, when they nurtured a human baby whose mother had deposited the infant at their feet and then expired, doubtless reassured that her child was in good hooves/paws/claws. In 2006, they coped with global warming in Ice Age: The Meltdown and Manny had the good fortune to meet his true mammoth love, Ellie (Queen Latifah).
In this new movie, they make the discovery that underneath their icy home is a whole new world, tropical and overrun with dinosaurs. You would think this would cause an existential crisis (Ice Age: Finally Over?) for the menagerie, but they're too focused on their various parenting crises to think bigger picture. Ellie and Manny are having a baby, opening the door to a series of crassly anthropomorphic references to her hormones and his paternal anxieties. The baby hasn't even arrived yet, but Diego is already pouting over feeling left out.
Ellie encourages Manny to go talk it over with the big cat. He resists, with the usual Ray Romano combination of whining and immaturity. "Guys don't talk to guys about guy problems," he tells her, exactly the stereotype every modern parent wants to see perpetuated in their small children's entertainment.
Sid is also unhappy about the impending arrival of the baby mammoth, but he copes with his insecurities by "adopting" three eggs he finds in an ice cave. They hatch and are revealed to each be a T. rex, whose mother soon finds and retrieves them in a neat mouthful, which includes Sid. The sloth's absence hardly seems like reason to take on the dinosaurs. Their possum friends sum it up nicely with this exchange: "I don't even like Sid." "Who does? He's an idiot." Nonetheless, they all go after him.
Despite the fact that a paleontologist would have fits over the various licenses co-directors Carlos Saldanha and Mike Thurmeier take with the dinosaur world ("I thought these guys were extinct," Ellie says, echoing our confusion), the movie does improve once it gets into the lush underground. That's largely because of the introduction of a moderately entertaining character named Buck (Simon Pegg), an eye-patch-wearing weasel who lives for the thrill of a dinosaur hunt. He's wisecracking, swashbuckling and, even with a pelt, harks back to Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow.
So the best character in the third Ice Age is a shameless rip-off of one of the most tried and true characters in recent cinematic history. Given the rest of the franchise, the limited creativity is not surprising. But what's really frustrating about the movie is how little attention it pays to its youthful audience. Beyond the cliff-teetering physical comedy, which always works the acorn-loving squirrel Scrat returns, reminding us of the joys of old-fashioned voiceless animation there is barely anything here that's really meant for kids.
Consider this exchange: "I feel tingly," one male animal says to another. "Don't say that when you are pressed up against me," it retorts. If that's the dopey sense of humor you're after this Fourth, why not just set your kid up in front of a triple bill of old episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, The King of Queens and According to Jim? It's just as all-American and would be cheaper.