Over the past decade, the “Ice Age” cartoons have made their name -- not to mention a killing at the box office -- as inoffensively inoffensive family entertainments (as opposed to offensively inoffensive pap like “Shark Tale,” “Planet 51,” and “Mars Needs Moms”).
They offer a distinct visual style, a brisk narrative pace and a handful of chuckles for the parents. In short: these films are generally good at being good enough, and the fourth installment, “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” doesn’t deviate from that modest tradition.
Still a tight-knit group, woolly mammoth Manny (voiced by Ray Romano), saber-toothed tiger Diego (Denis Leary) and bumbling sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) are thrown into adventure once again when the separation of Pangaea splits Manny from his wife and daughter (“Joyful Noise” co-stars Queen Latifah and Keke Palmer) and pits all three against an equally unlikely assembly of sea scoundrels led by “primate pirate pioneer” Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage).
Fairly routine subplots follow: Manny has to get back to his family, his rebellious teen daughter gives into peer pressure and dismisses a loyal friend (Josh Gad), Diego falls for an equally stubborn saber-toothed tigress (Jennifer Lopez), and Sid has to contend with a grandmother (Wanda Sykes) who annoys him as badly as he annoys everyone else. Feel free to extrapolate every third-act moral from there.
Is it the fault of the Blue Sky team that they failed to capitalize on “Pirates of the Caribbean” fever before Aardman beat them to it? That the glacier-fleeing panic and themes of inter-species teamwork happen to evoke last November’s “Happy Feet Two,” or that the romantic rivalry between fierce felines echoes that of last October’s “Puss in Boots”? No, in fairness, they couldn’t have known, but when Sid befriends a bevy of fluffy little friends, it brings back Part 2’s own army of sloths, and when he off-handedly apologizes for the last film’s prehistoric indulgence -- “We fought dinosaurs in the ice age. It didn’t make sense, but it sure was fun!” -- it also feels like a passive admission that the series is treading water until its heroes have to go extinct.
Until then, we get ice pirate songs, a quasi-freaky encounter with sirens, some remarkably dynamic tectonic action, Nick Frost following in Simon Pegg’s footsteps as an elephant seal, Aziz Ansari rather perfectly cast as a restless rabbit, hip-hop artists Drake and Nicki Minaj needlessly rounding out the ranks before singing an end-credits song with the cast that then renders one-time bad boy Denis Leary the odd man outand now-dusty “Braveheart” references.
The film’s single worst half-joke -- “Silly rabbit, piracy doesn’t pay!” -- stands as a mutant aberration of the screenplay’s “laugh if you recognize this” formula, a stale pop culture reference fused with weak wordplay just because.
But given a moment, the beat passes in a flurry of climactic gags, and as always, at least there’s Scrat. The “Looney Tunes”-flavored antics of everybody’s favorite saber-toothed squirrel are as enjoyable as ever, initially kicking off the plot (you may have already seen the opening as a short, in which Scrat’s efforts to bury his beloved acorn tear the entire world quite literally asunder) and often serving as something of a reprieve in a sea of sitcom dilemmas and familiar lessons. For that poor rodent, it’s always the end of the world, but so long as he’s around, the “Ice Age” films will never rival such depths of despair.