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Forward—Into the Past! Two movies, and about time.

It occurs to me that these reviews dovetail nicely, with one film being set in the distant past, and one in the distant future. So I offer them to the reader as a matched set—ALS.

A film by Chris Wedge
Running time: 85 minutes
Written by Michael Berg (New Jersey Turnpikes), Peter Ackerman (debut) Michael Wilson (co-writer of The Tuxedo).
Cast (Voice): Ray Romano (Manfred the Mammoth), John Leguizamo (Sid the Sloth), Diedrich Bader, Jack Black (Zeke), Cedric the Entertainer, Jane Krakowski (Jennifer the Sloth), Denis Leary (Diego the Sabre-Toothed Tiger), Goran Visnjic (Sabre-Toothed Tiger)

I'm a sucker for animated films, in part because of my love for the medium itself and in part because, well, I guess I just haven't grown up all the way yet. Of course, when you consider that animated films are made by adults in the first place, you might say that I am not alone in my obsession. And those people get paid to do it!) Anyway, I have an appreciation for the difficulties inherent in making an animated film, so I am always happy to see a good one. And Ice Age is a good one.

These days are in some respects the Golden Age of animation. While it is perfectly true that the heyday of cel (hand-drawn) animation was probably the period running roughly from 1936 to about 1950 or so, before the arrival of television and "limited" animation, we are seeing a delightful resurgence of the form energized by the new look and feel of refined computer animation.

Don't get me wrong - there is always going to be a place for traditional cel animation a la Disney, and traditional stop-motion animation a la Nick Parks (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run). These forms of the craft are already being partially augmented in places with computer enhancements; some subtle, as in the shading on the characters, and others less so. I find the hybridization rather exciting, and I wonder what animation will be like in 200 years. It's only just over a century old now.

Computer animation, on the other hand, is a lot younger. It was pioneered by guys experimenting with CRTs on the old mainframes, and refined somewhat (sprite animation, primitive graphics "editors") on Apple IIs and IBM pcs. Not until dedicated systems like the Artronics came into being in the 1980s, however, did the real possibilities of the medium became apparent. And once powerful animation software for the desktop machines like the late lamented Amiga and the Macintosh came along, people began to realize that all sorts of nifty digital effects could be accomplished by people sitting around their home machines.

And imagine how much more elaborate the films of an animation production house could get. John Lassiter of Pixar realized this pretty early on. Though he was a classically trained animator who knew little or nothing about computers, he did know the essentials of animation: character and timing. Without these things, all you have is your basic flying metallic logo.

Once Lassiter started producing short two or three-minute films like Red's Dreamand Tin Toy, other animators started realizing what could be accomplished. And the great march away from the frozen landscape of flying logos had begun.

Ice Age begins with a march away from a frozen landscape, too. The Great Ice is encroaching and the Pleistocene animals are on the move south. Well, most of them are. Manny, a misanthrophic (can I use that word if I'm talking about a mammoth who doesn't like being around other creatures?) hairy mammoth is going to tough it pout. A silly ground sloth named Sid (lispingly voiced by John Leguizamo) runs into him while fleeing from a pair of enraged rhinos whose salad he has accidentally trashed. Manny grudgingly helps Sid out, but isn't interested in having a buddy tag along with him, especially since Sid wants to go south after the other creatures.

But Manny and Sid suddenly have their plans changed when they find themselves burdened with a human infant. The baby's tribe has been dispersed by sabre-toothed tigers, the leader of whom (voice by Gordon Vishniac) wants the infant for breakfast.

Manny and Sid try to return the baby to its tribe, and this forms the main plot of the movie. One of the tigers, Diego (Dennis Leary), convinces the other two animals that he can guide them to the Cro-Magnon tribe, which has begun its trek south away from the ice. What Manny and Sid don't know is that Diego is setting them up.

Ice Age isn't as wacky as Monsters, Inc., or as richly characterized as Shrek, but it is plenty funny and has some extraordinary set pieces. In places, moreover, it is actually quite moving. The movie's palette tends toward the earth-tones, and occasionally reminded me of works by some of the Flemish masters such as Brueghel. It also convinced me that dodos were better off going extinct.

The voice characterization were very well done. The script had no awkward moments and actually managed to get funnier as it went along. It managed the difficult feat of not talking down to the kids, while remaining fresh and funny for adults. The best bits of comic business go to Sid, who is particularly well animated, and displays some unexpected skating and snowboarding abilities at critical moments. Aside from a brilliant sequence with the aforementioned survivalist dodos, there was also a very funny little scene with Sid and two female sloths relaxing in a prehistoric mud bath.

There are also some nice comic bits involving a "scrat," a saber-toothed cross between a rat and a squirrel, which had to be right out of some of Chuck Jones's work.

Ice Age isn't the deepest film I have ever seen. Anyone can spot the plot developments coming a mile away, but the script is jokey and witty for all that. Overall, the film is cleverly and adroitly done, including a nice sequence utilizing animated cave paintings. I wouldn't mind seeing it again. It isn't as flamboyant or as cutting-edge (in terms of mind-blowing animation) as, say, Jimmy Neutron, but it has more heart, with plenty of action and fun stuff for adults as well as kids. It's an impressive feature-length debut for Blue Sky Studios, and I'm looking forward to whatever they dish up next.


Directors: Simon Wells (Balto; codirector of The Prince of Egypt, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, We're Back!: A Dinosaur's Story; this is his live-action debut);

Gore Verbinski (Mouse Hunt , The Mexican )

Screenwriters: John Logan ( Bats , Star Trek: Nemesis ; cowriter of Gladiator ), Simon Wells (debut)

Cast: Guy Pearce (Alexander Hartdegen), Mark Addy (Dr. Philby), Jeremy Irons, Yancey

Arias (Toren), Philip Bosco, Sienna Guillory (Emma), Phyllida Law, Omero Mumba (Kalen), Samantha Mumba (Mara), Josh Stamberg (J.P. Fitzroy)

Movie web site:

I've long been a fan of H.G. Wells, in part because his 1895 short novel, The Time Machine , really gripped my imagination when I was a kid. It was one of the first works of science fiction that I read. Although I found the George Pal movie version of the book quite exciting, I was a little disappointed by it because it didn't have the sweep of Wells's novel. The same may be said for this new version, for all that its effects are outstanding and the acting is generally quite good.

In Wells's book, the Time Traveler ("for so it will be convenient to speak of him") flings himself into the future pretty much for the hell of it, after demonstrating a model time machine for a group of friends. The group is gone in this new version, and the Time Traveler has become the solitary Dr. Alexander Hartdegen, professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University in turn-of-the-century New York City. On the same night that he proposes to his sweetheart, fetchingly played by Sienna Guillory, she is tragically killed. Emotionally pulverized, the already withdrawn Hartdegen retreats totally into his work: the practical applications of time travel. Four years later he perfects his machine and sets off into the past to change what has happened.

(Hardware freak notice: the time machine itself is a delightful contraption, but I'm damned if I can figure out why it seems to need hydraulics to work! The George Pal time machine was simpler and perhaps less convincing, but easier to "get" in a glance and less cold in its brocade Victorian design. My favorite design for the device is probably still the "atomic" version in the Classics Illustrated comic book.)

Back in the past, Hartdegen successfully heads his sweetheart off from her appointment with death. It's about the only time in the movie when we get to see some of Guy Pearce's acting chops. Hartdegen is so mind-boggled and ecstatic to see his "resurrected" lady love that he can barely speak. It's the most affecting scene in the film.

(Paradox note: What happened to the earlier Hartdegen? There is no further mention of him. Presumably, he is left to wander in the park while his fiancee takes off with his future self.)

Sadly, Hartdegen's happiness does not last. He finds out to his despair that the past apparently cannot be changed. Should he go back and try again? Seeking an answer to his existential dilemma, he heads off into the future aboard his machine. Around him, his lab sweeps itself clear of furniture and equipment. Plants and vines grew up over his conservatory in the flash of an eye - the building melts away. These effects are marvelous, but better ones are to come. From the audience's viewpoint, the city flows up and out, in a lovely montage. Hartdegen pauses in 2020 for a quick tour of a New York City in which automobiles have apparently been banned - everyone gets around on bicycle. He encounters a holographic help system in the New York Public Library, entertainingly played by Orlando Jones (Evolution) and soon is off again, this time into the far distant future. This time travel sequence is simply astonishing, as the flickering machine in its spherical force field is surrounded by an ice age, then desert, and finally jungle. The land itself shifts and morphs into new forms, and we really do get a sense of an immense passage of time.

When Hartdegen stops this time, he is more than a half million years into the future. What had once been Manhattan island is now the top of a huge plateau overlooking a vast gorge, on the sides of which live the gentle Eloi, obviously a mixture of present-day races, in appealing sconce-like dwellings stuck in the manner of limpets to the very rock.

He is befriended by Mara, played by singer Samantha Mumba, who is admittedly very easy on the eyes. She can speak a little English, rather unbelievably, because the language has been "handed down" for—well, hundreds of thousands of years. Sure. I believe that.

Anyway, Eloi-land (far future New York, remember) seems like a paradise, but there are some rather nasty snakes in the offing: the Morlocks, who look as if they were designed by Richard Corben during his underground comics years. They are not the shuffling green-skinned goofballs of the george Pal movie: no, these Morlocks really are superior creatures, immensely strong, fast, ruthless—and intelligent. Wells hypothesized humanity's split into two species as a result of social forces, but in this film version the bifurcation has come about due to a "natural" disaster occurring in our near future. This extraneous cautionary note isn't as compelling as Wells's original vision, and the film doesn't benefit from it. Several other rather obvious expository short-cuts are taken throughout the movie, in fact.

Wells's Morlocks functioned as providers for the weak, girlish Eloi. The film's Morlocks don't seem to have any real purpose. The new Eloi are physically vital and seem perfectly able to provide for themselves. Their only problem is that for some reason they can't really envision ever fighting back against the depredations of the Morlocks. This is too much even for the shy Dr. Hartdegen. Mara is snagged by Morlocks for breeding purposes, supposedly, although I would think the Morlocks would view her similarly to a human viewing a chimp. He can't stand the idea of losing another love, so he descends -- weaponless -- into their underground lair after her, never mind the fact that even the wimpiest Morlock would be able to hand his head to him in a trice. Hartdegen doesn't even have the matches provided the original version of the Time Traveler by Wells and George Pal.

What he does have is—well, I'll leave the spoilers out.

The film doesn't stink to high heaven by any means, but it should have been and could have been much better. The whole idea of having an ÜberMorlock is a good idea, and, oddly enough, straight out of Wells: he supposedly toyed with the concept but had abandoned it by the time be committed the final version of The Time Machine (there were at least three) to print. The film doesn't really do much with it.

Of course, there is plenty of room for a sequel. Remember, there's that earlier version of Dr. Hartdegen wandering disconsolately around 1899. Plus the New York Public Library's animated card catalog is still in existence after 800,000 years (uh-huh) to provide information.

One of the best scenes in the film involves the library, in fact. It's a throw-away rioght at the very end, with Orlando Jones happily reciting Tom Sawyer to a group of rapt far-future kids. I think both Mr. Twain and Mr. Wells would have liked that little touch.

It's not clear how much else they would have found to praise in this well-meaning but ultimately slightly off-base flick. Bottom line: not bad, but you might want to wait for the rental. Although there is that first half-hour or so...


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