‘Ice Age: The Meltdown'

"Ice Age: The Meltdown" has strange but seemingly good news for fans of director Chris Wedge's slap-happy original "Ice Age"--of which I admit to being one. In that movie, one of the surprise hits of 2002, Wedge and his nifty creative team and live wire actors had lots of fun with an oncoming ice age.

But, whereas a real ice age lasts 100,000 years or so, the one that descended on our buddies from the first movie--including Manny the dolorous woolly mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano), Diego the cool saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) and Sid the excitable tree-hugging sloth (John Leguizamo)--now seems more of a cold snap.

In this sequel, which also brings back Scrat the acorn-addicted squirrel/rat (Wedge), the glaciers are melting, including the icy dam that protects our pals' valley home; they and the other animals are high-tailing it to a distant ark pointed out by a helpful vulture. (The fact that the vultures' favorite song is "Food, Glorious Food!" from "Oliver!" isn't reassuring.)

Along the way to the ark, love beckons Manny in the hefty but lovable form of Ellie (Queen Latifah), another mammoth, but one raised by possums--like her "brothers" Crash (Seann William Scott) and Eddie (Josh Peck). Sid handles his inferiority complex in an unusually godlike way and Diego faces his fear of swimming as the flood nears. But though we know some sort of excitement has to be waiting in the last act, the possibilities no longer seem so cataclysmic.

I'm not sure all this is a good idea. Jokes, especially in cartoons, often play better when there's seeming menace behind them, which is why the best scenes in "Meltdown" are still the ones involving Scrat's determined pursuit of that ever-elusive acorn and the cruel havoc wreaked in its wake. If we suspect the menace is a crock, it hurts the joke.

What attracted audiences to the first "Ice Age" was the buddy bonding of the Manny-Diego-Sid trio set against the notion of worldwide catastrophe, as well as the sheer visual pleasure of its snow- and icescapes, reminiscent of those gorgeously empty desert arenas in Chuck Jones' "Road Runner" cartoons.

Additional attractions included Leguizamo's great voice job as Sid, and Scrat's Wile E. Coyote-style gags, which are highlights here too--though the banter is weaker, the backdrop mostly a pretty valley. Eventually, we know, there'll be a cliffhanger. But it's not as exciting.

This "Ice Age" is still a good movie (especially for kids) with top-of-the-tech CGI. But perhaps because original director Wedge isn't doing as much (he now acts as co-executive producer besides making Scrat's squeaks), it feels more like an anonymous franchise film. There's a different director, Carlos Saldanha, and different writers.

The meltdown twist also hampers the future of the series. How can you continue an Ice Age saga when the ice has melted? And if you bring back the glaciers next time to get those jokes restarted, how will an audience ever trust you again?

One thing we can trust is the actors, especially Leguizamo. And though Romano and Latifah don't have much chemistry as a couple, you wouldn't want to see too much PG hanky-panky between a couple of woolly mammoths anyway. The three mismatched buddies (Manny, Diego and Sid) give us enough mushy, slushy bonding as it is.

As for the next "Ice Age," despite that massive problem of logic and science, I'm afraid they should bite the bullet and consider reversing the thaw. Global warming may be a hot topic now, but why let a joke cartoon version spoil the icy fun for Sid and the boys?

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