Animation is no longer just the provence of the major studios. Now it seems like every one in Hollywood has jumped on the bandwagon. And while more choices is a good thing, that doesn’t mean everything they produce will be. But you can’t go in assuming the worst because sometimes those lower budget projects from the newcomers can surprise you. The most an audience member can do is buy their ticket and take their chances hoping the next film is more Hoodwinked and less Happily N’Ever After.

nutjob1Surley is a selfish squirrel who’s only interest is looking out for himself. The rest of the creatures of the city park have formed a community where they work together to take care of each other. After his latest antics destroy their winter cache of food, Surley is banished from the park and must survive on the city streets. With only his thieving prowess to keep him alive he comes up with a plan to rob a nut store. But between Surley, the park animals who also need to replace their food, and the shop owners with a different plan for their stock, the question is who is conning whom?

When I first saw the trailer for The Nut Job I had hope for it. It had an extremely clever title and I liked the concept. Unfortunately those hopes were quickly dashed. The story was bland and predictable. Worse, it seemed to be purposely filled with every stale animation convention in the book — especially those related to bodily functions. None of the characters was very likable, or for that matter written very well; Surley was a jerk who with no redeeming qualities; the female lead Andie was a cardboard cut-out character; the park hero Grayson was an indecipherable mess whose dialogue felt like it was written independently of the movie he was in; almost by default the guard dog Precious gets the honor of being the most tolerable in the film, but only just. I’m racking my brain to think of anything I can add to this to temper the bad, but story-wise the film just falls apart. There is a lot I forgive in a movie, but when the story fails there’s usually no way to save it. (There is however, a way to make it even worse — for the love of all that is good, leave as the film fades to black or be treated to the absolute worst groaner of a credits sequence you’ve ever seen!)

As the tools become better and easier to use it’s getting harder to criticize the general animation is these films. But the best artists always find a way of surprising you. That aspect is few and far between here. Of the characters Surley gets the most attention and there’s not anything to fault there. His partner Buddy looks like an emaciated Ratatouille rat copied right from the Pixar hard drives. And everyone else is so unremarkable as to not be even worth mentioning. The slap-stick animation style is a bit reminiscent of some of the old 1950s Warner Bros. cartoons, which is fun is some places but doesn’t work as well in others.

nutjob2The biggest thing I can think of to praise about this movie is the voice acting of Will Arnett. He perfectly conveys the feeling I think the writers and animators were trying to get across with the character. And he seems like one of the few actors who really put an effort into their part. Maya Rudolph as Precious was another, but her performance was even more stunted by the writing. Katherine Heigl’s Andie was as bland as the design of her character. I’ve mentioned in the past that I can’t help but like everything Brendan Fraser is in. But that streak may be over now. Grayson’s dialogue (and Frasier’s reading of it) so poorly meshes with the rest of the film that it really feels like maybe two different drafts got crossed somewhere and this piece was never synced properly. Lastly, what favor did someone have to call in to get Liam Neeson involved with this mess?

Knowing the hard work over several years a lot of good people do to put together animated films, I always hate coming in afterwards and sitting safely behind my computer ripping them apart in an hour or so. But if you’re going to do the work anyway, you might as well do it right. The idea behind the film was a good one. And I still love that clever title. But The Nut Job fails to deliver the goods.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

The Nut Job
Open Road/ToonBox/Red Rover
January 17, 2014
86 minutes
Rated PG
directed by Peter Lepeniotis