20th Century Fox, Associated Press
The keystone moment of "Ice Age: Continental Drift" — the twist that the entire plot hinges on — literally tears a family apart.
When a gigantic land mass suddenly breaks up into several smaller continents, Manny the woolly mammoth finds himself standing on an iceberg that chipped off from terra firma. Problem is, Ellie and Peaches — Manny's mammoth mate and teenage daughter, respectively — are still positioned on the mainland.
Manny and Ellie immediately reach out to each other, intertwining trunks to stave off imminent separation. But they soon slip apart, and Manny quickly starts to drift away. Just before he floats out of earshot, Manny bellows to Ellie and Peaches: "No matter how long it takes, I will find you!"
From that moment forward, Manny spends the rest of the movie working to reunite his family.
Although an animated film for children sounds like the perfect place to depict and explore the parent-child relationships that largely define kids' lives, reality tells a different story: The strong family ties binding Manny and Ellie to their daughter Peaches aren't as common as you might think. That's because, dating back centuries to the storytelling tradition of fables, the diminished presence or complete absence of parental figures is a tried-and-true method for emotionally immersing kids into stories.
Telling stories to kids
Try this thought exercise on for size: Think of your favorite Pixar film, and then ask yourself whether the movie's chief protagonists engage in any kind of meaningful parent-child interaction.
Buzz Lightyear and Sherriff Woody ("Toy Story" trilogy), for example, are not attached to any parents or children of their own. Ditto for Lightning McQueen ("Cars"), the one-eyed Mike Wazowski ("Monsters Inc.") and the title character in "Wall-E."
Granted, there is meaningful parent-child interaction in Pixar's "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles" and, most recently, "Brave." But more often than not, children's animated films lack the kind of nuclear family that is showcased in "Continental Drift."
Kelly Loosli, the director of BYU's animation program and a veteran of the animation industry who worked at places like Disney and Pixar, believes there's a viable explanation for this trend that is actually rather straightforward and rooted in the tradition of fable storytelling.
"There's a whole concept that kind of goes into the concept behind fables, mythology and most of children's literature: A lot of children's literature is based on fears that children have," Loosli explained. "Most kids go through a phase where they're freaked out about, 'What would happen to me if my mom and dad died?' And a lot of fables come out of that concept. …
"So much of even just the classic Disney films center around either the loss of family or the loss of a family member or something like that, because those are core issues for children. It's a way to articulate and play out children's fears through animation, because animation's a nice way to show difficult things but in a detached, less scary way."
Loosli strongly contends that the frequent absence of nuclear families from children's animation is not some kind of anti-family Hollywood conspiracy.
"Sometimes people like to think that Hollywood's out to ruin our morals," he said. "That's not to say that some films don't have overt agendas, but those are so few and far between. It's really just a business — they want to make money, and whatever they think they can make money with, they will make it."
It still feels fresh
The first "Ice Age" movie descended on theaters in 2002, racking up $176 million in the U.S. and $207 million internationally. The domestic box office hauls for "Ice Age: The Meltdown" (2006) and "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" (2009) closely mirrored that of the first "Ice Age" film — but the second and third films skyrocketed abroad to internationally gross $460 million and $690 million, respectively.
In fine, 20th Century Fox had a cash cow on its hand. But to keep plotlines fresh for a fourth film, Fox needed to infuse new material into its "Ice Age" franchise. And with a cadre of brand-new characters playing significant roles in Manny's deeply emotional journey, "Continental Drift" satisfyingly reinvigorates the "Ice Age" franchise.
Although the Manny-Ellie-Peaches triangle is the family dynamic most prominently featured throughout "Continental Drift," a significant amount of the story also plays off the relationship between Sid the sloth and his toothless, forgetful and opinionated Granny. After Sid's family dumps Granny into his care because they're tired of searching for her every time she wanders away, Sid and Granny bond with each other after realizing that they're a pair of sloths who have both essentially been discarded by Sid's parents.
The agile voice of Wanda Sykes breathes zest and vitality into Granny, but the graying sloth isn't the only new character that helps "Continental Drift" feel fun and satisfying. Other welcome cast additions include Captain Gutt (Peter Drinklage), a violent and angry orangutan who fancies himself a pirate captain, and the saber-toothed tigress Shira (Jennifer Lopez).
"Ice Age: Continental Drift" is rated PG for mild rude humor and action/peril.
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