I miss the days when the economics of animation were so daunting that we were assured a certain level of quality. Yes, there were some low points that don’t even qualify for a Disney re-issue (I could find some affection for “Chicken Little” and “Treasure Planet,” but even I can’t find much to like in “The Black Cauldron” or “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”). Unfortunately, now that computer modeling makes animation more affordable, movies are getting made that don’t meet the minimum standards for a feature film.
“The Nut Job” is not an awful movie, nowhere near as bad as last year’s “Free Birds” or “Escape from Planet Earth.” It is just not very good, with sluggish pacing and a weak script that is both over- and under-written. One telling detail is the movie’s reliance on the 2012 Psy hit song “Gangnam Style.” When a two-year-old song is a movie’s high point, it’s in trouble. The thanks to the tourism bureau of South Korea in the credits is also an indication that entertainment and story-telling were not the sole purpose of the film.
The voice talent is fine, especially Maya Rudolph as a bulldog, but the visuals are not especially imaginative. As we see so often in sub-par animation, the focus (literally) seems to be on making every hair distinct rather than in finding a visual way to move the story. Very simple, basic fundamentals like a sense of place and the relationships of the various locations to each other are poorly handled and the 3D is entirely unnecessary.
If you want to see an entertaining and funny movie about backyard creatures trying to steal nuts, take a look at an old Disney “Chip ‘n’ Dale” cartoon. This has essentially the same idea, but weighed down with complications that, like the hyper-realism of each hair in the animals’ fur, overtakes the big picture.
A squirrel named Surly (Will Arnett) is a cynical loner with just one friend, a rat. They live in a city park. Surly has no interest in cooperating with the rest of the animals, who work together to gather food. Their leader is Raccoon (Liam Neeson), and when he warns that they do not have enough food, the responsible, loyal, and dedicated Andie (Katherine Heigl) and dim, overconfident Grayson (Brendan Fraser), regarded by all the animals as their hero, go off in search of food and find the same target already identified by Surly, a nut cart. When their competition over the cart results in disaster that destroys the animals’ entire store of food, Surly is banished. He is lost at first as he explores the city for the first time, but then he finds the nut shop behind the cart, which turns out to be a front for a group of bank robbers.
So there’s conflict between Surly and Andie, the animals and the humans, the squirrels and some scary-looking rats, the squirrels and the bulldog, the squirrels and various perilous spots, the robbers and each other, the robbers and the bank, and the only thing the kids enjoyed at the screening I attended was the bodily function humor and some slapstick. Then there’s the issue of looking out for oneself only versus being part of a group, which feels like it was thrown in at the last minute. Most of the movie is about two elaborate robberies but the one I minded was the loss of the time I spent watching it.
Parents should know that there is a good deal of cartoon-style peril and violence, including guns and scary rats, but no one gets badly hurt (stay through the credits to be reassured). There is some mild language and some crude potty humor. Human and animal characters spend most of the movie plotting thefts with little recognition that this could be wrong or hurting anyone.
Family discussion: Why did Surly and Andie have different ideas about being part of the community? Which characters trusted the wrong people or animals?
If you like this, try: “Over the Hedge”