The “Ice Age” folks have the formula down very well, and this fourth entry is one of their strongest, with enough of the familiar to be satisfying and enough that is new to keep things interesting. The real expertise is the mixture of heart, humor, and adventure, in what is now one of the most reliably entertaining series for families.
It begins, as “Ice Age” must, with Scrat, the saber-toothed squirrel who is the Sisyphus of the pre-historic era. Scrat (voiced, or, I should say, squeaked and squealed, by director Chris Wedge) wants an acorn, but it is his destiny to have it always just beyond his reach or to create chaos when he tries to bury it. Both happen right off the bat as inserting the tip of the acorn into the ice has results that are literally earth-shattering. Yes, it turns out that the reason the continents separated and moved to opposite sides of the oceans was because of a squirrel.
Meanwhile, our old friends Diego the cranky saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary), Manny the anxious Mammoth (Ray Romano), and Sid the silly sloth (John Leguizamo) are on the wrong side of the dividing tectonic plates and become separated from Manny’s mate Ellie (Queen Latifah) and his tween daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer). Just as Manny and Peaches are in conflict because she wants to hang out with her friends and he thinks she is too young, the ground buckles and cracks underneath them. Diego, Manny, and Sid are adrift on an ice floe along with Sid’s dotty grandmother (Wanda Sykes). Like Daniel Day-Lewis in “Last of the Mohicans,” Manny promises, “I will find you.” But they have no cell phones or GPS or even maps.
And then things get worse, as they run into a pirate crew on a ship made from ice led by the piratical Captain Gutt (a sensational Peter Dinklage of “Game of Thrones”). His first make is a female saber-toothed tiger named Shira (Jennifer Lopez). Our heroes must battle Gutt’s gang and find their way back home. Gutt and Sid’s granny are welcome additions to the cast, adding vitality and flavor to a cast whose conflicts have subsided in the previous chapters. The animation is exceptionally well executed, especially the roiling water and a very funny reaction to a paralyzing plant. The action scenes continue to be crisply executed and the happy ending includes lessons on loyalty for friends and family. If it merrily ignores any historical or scientific legitimacy, it shows its value with wit and heart.
Parents should know that this film includes cartoon-style peril including threats to a character’s family, some parent-teenager struggles, brief schoolyard potty humor, and mild language (“screwed up,” “holy crab”).
Family discussion: What is the difference between a herd, a pack, and a family?
If you like this, try: the other “Ice Age” movies — and go to a museum to see what the real mammoths, sloths, and saber-tooth tigers were like.