The Ice Age Cometh

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J Pond is a high school senior in Abilene, Texas. He's 17, stands 6 ft. 7 in. and plays football--not the kind of guy you would expect to find watching cartoons on a Saturday afternoon. Yet on the weekend of March 15, Pond went to see Ice Age, a $60 million animated comedy in which a deadpan woolly mammoth (Ray Romano), a goofy sloth (John Leguizamo) and a duplicitous tiger (Denis Leary) go on an odyssey to reunite a human baby with its father. "The whole movie was a trip to me," says Pond, who especially liked the part where the sloth's tongue gets stuck to the ice. "It was real funny."

Ice Age scorched the box office on its opening weekend: it earned $46 million, the second best opening ever for an animated film (after Monsters, Inc.'s $63 million). Its mammoth debut was a thundering surprise, not just because the PG-rated film came from 20th Century Fox, a studio with a dismal animation track record, but also because a curious 30% of the audience was what Hollywood calls "nonfamily" moviegoers. In other words, the audience was not just moms and dads and kids--they are to be expected--but also young adults and teens, including the species Homo adolescence, teenage boys who usually avoid anything without action-adventure or Adam Sandler.

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How did Ice Age get so hot with teenagers? The advance word of a new Star Wars trailer that Fox attached to the film didn't hurt. And some younger teens may have bought tickets to Ice Age at the cineplex in order to sneak into the new R-rated horror flick Resident Evil. But the vast majority were like Pond--from a computer-literate generation that responds viscerally to the look of Ice Age's computer-generated (also referred to as CG or 3-D) animation. The proof is in the ticket sales. While traditional (or 2-D) animation has been waning at the box office, last year saw two CG blockbusters: DreamWorks/PDI's Shrek, which made $268 million domestically, and Disney/Pixar's Monsters, Inc., which has pulled in $253 million. "You can't get to any of these numbers with only children," notes Disney's president of animation, Tom Schumacher, "because kids are paying only half price."

Apart from featuring high-tech design, these hits have also primed audiences to assume that "there's stuff in [CG animation] for teens and adults," says Fox marketing executive Jeffrey Godsick, "and that's why you see a willingness in them to go to these movies on their own." Shrek, with its bathroom humor (you don't put Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers in a movie and get a Sunday school lesson) and inside jokes about rival studio Disney, made the genre seem cool to teens. Ice Age, directed by Chris Wedge and produced through Fox's digital arm, Blue Sky, was hyped to all age groups via a marketing campaign that cost about $25 million. Burger King created a new frozen Ice Age drink for the kids. The older, Simpsons-watching audience saw a TV spot featuring the film's Scrat character (a nervous squirrel-rat hybrid with a fondness for acorns) that contained a double entendre about nuts.

The arrival of Ice Age coincided last week with Disney's announcement that it would lay off 265 animation employees and retrain some of its artists on computers. This underlined a nagging notion that traditional animation is becoming extinct. More likely, though, we'll be seeing a marriage of the old and the new. DreamWorks co-owner Jeffrey Katzenberg concedes that "if we stayed stuck in the 20th century with the same look and style, it would be rejected--and it has been rejected." But he doesn't blame the audience; he blames Hollywood. Tarzan, he says, referring to Disney's 1999 hit movie, "was the last really great story done in 2-D." He's hoping to change that with Spirit, a horse adventure opening May 24 with both hand- and computer-drawn images. Plus, it should be noted, there is a scene in which the hero's tongue gets stuck to the ice.