When I first saw "Ice Age," I thought it had some nice CGI animation, solid casting, and a decent storyline. But was it groundbreaking or memorable? Not really. I couldn't tell you a thing about it now, except that it involved a human baby that was found by an odd assortment of prehistoric mammals who then tried to decide what to do with it.
I expected the sequel to be just as competent-but-forgettable, but a funny thing happened when I pressed the play button. I laughed out loud more than I can remember with a recent animated feature. It was as if writers Peter Gaulke, Gerry Swallow, and Jim Hecht spent a year in solitary confinement watching the best of the old Road Runner cartoons and other shorts from the Warner Brothers golden age of animation. The breakneck pacing of the gags, the fast-talking characters, the wise-guy tone, the ka-BLOOEY-style comeuppances, the slapstick, the gallows humor, and the irreverence are all here. In other words, "Ice Age: The Meltdown" has a lot more zip and panache and it comes closer to those great old Warner Brothers cartoons than it does to the original "Ice Age."
Scrat, the little saber-toothed squirrel, is back and with a meatier role. Director Carlos Saldanha, who worked on the first film, doesn't hold back this time around. Scrat's struggles with giant acorns are the stuff of Ice Age legend, and they set the standard for a number of other sight gags and physical humor. That's offset nicely by the verbal jokes. As Manny the Mammoth, Ray Romano's droll and laconic deadpan is a perfect foil for the more manic and lispingly funny John Leguizamo, who plays Sid the Sloth. And Romano's style is perfectly suited to the running black-humor gag about his being the last of a species, which directly ties into the plot. All of these creatures are threatened with extinction.
The premise this time is right out of today's headlines: global warming. The glaciers are melting, and with water threatening to flood the valley where all of these furry critters live, they decide to make for the other end of the valley to try to escape the dinosaurs' fate. As if to validate Al Gore's argument with the scariest possible scenario, the warming ends up defrosting a couple of ancient Jurassic-era sea creatures who, of course, have a taste for mammal.
On the "Ice Age" DVD, co-directors Chris Wedge and Saldanha said they wanted to create a 3-D CGI version of the old Chuck Jones "Road Runner" cartoons, and what they've come up with is certainly a loving tribute to Jones. The plot may be as formulaic as one of the "Land Before Time" videos (with about the same level of complexity), but the Chuck Jones' feel that this film has really gives it a vitality that I think was missing from the first entry. Throw in a mammoth who thinks she's a possum (voiced by Queen Latifah), a fast-talking armadillo (Jay Leno), and a saber-toothed cat (Denis Leary) who's even droller than Manny, and you've got a film that's surprisingly funny for adults as well as kids.
If you've got a Samsung player, this disc is one of three I've run across that ejects with the message, "This disc cannot be played." If that happens, try rotating the disc. I did that twice before the third time turned out to be the charm.
The transfer on the standard disc was pretty good, but the Blu-ray is a notch better. "Ice Age: The Meldown" was transferred using MPEG 2 technology at 18MBPS on a 25GB single-layer disc. The aspect ratio is 1.85:1. Once you get the dang thing to play, it's a pleasure to watch. The colors are vivid, and the level of detail is what you'd expect from an all-digital CGI animated feature.
The audio is likewise very good. The main "showcase" Blu-ray audio option is the English DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless, and it's as good as any of the Blu-rays I've reviewed. Lesser options are Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in Spanish and English (CC).
The surprise is that there are a ton of features for a 25-gig single-layer disc. Both commentaries are included, one featuring the director and the other about a dozen crew members. The free-for-all is the most interesting, but not because it's necessarily wild. When you bring so many experts on board, you're bound to get more concentrated information and insights than with a single director walking you through the process.
There's a multi-angle scene-study featurette called "The Animation Director's Chair" that's not half-bad, as well as an artist gallery channel. Included is an in-character phony assemblage of "vintage" clips called "The Lost Historical Student Films on the Ice Age Period." I've said before that I'm no fan of these type of features because they seldom are able to hold their comic edge for more than a few moments, and this black-and-white one isn't all that funny. I would rather have had the short feature on character designer Peter De Séve that was on the SD version.
I don't know what brain trust at Fox determined which of the four games from the SD release to include on the Blu-ray, but they picked the two weakest games. The best were a memory game and one in which kids could help Sid take shots on a soccer goal. The weakest (included here) are a lame trivia game that's all numbers and all guesswork, and an okay personality quiz that helps kids pick their "buddy" from the film. Kids will also like playing the Scrat piranha scene with different sound effects options, and a series of outtake pranks that are brief as limericks.
The best extra, by far, is a hilarious new cartoon short featuring Scrat. The little fellow digs up a time travel device (beware, parents, if your child is afraid to see a skeleton) and he starts pressing buttons. Through scene after scene we get to see this little obsessed fellow pursue the object of his desire--a giant acorn--through different centuries.
"Ice Age: The Meltdown" is a fun romp that calls to mind the very best of the old Warner Brothers cartoons. In Blu-ray, it looks and sounds pretty incredible.