"Ice Age" is a hot prospect for hit status. Evidencing much of the same cross-generational appeal that made last year's "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc." attractive to audiences of all ages, this co-production of 20th Century Fox Animation and CGI wizard Chris Wedge's Blue Sky Studios should post way-cool B.O. numbers.

Ice Age” is a hot prospect for hit status. Evidencing much of the same cross-generational appeal that made last year’s “Shrek” and “Monsters, Inc.” attractive to audiences of all ages, this co-production of 20th Century Fox Animation and CGI wizard Chris Wedge’s Blue Sky Studios should post way-cool B.O. numbers in extended theatrical run before migrating to even greener fields of homevid sales and rentals.

Wedge (whose highly praised “Bunny” copped a 1999 Academy Award for animated short) and co-director Carlos Saldanha lead their Blue Sky collaborators in setting new standards for computer-generated anthropomorphism. There’s something matter-of-factly astonishing about the vivid precision of key details, ranging from the seemingly 3-D qualities of animals roaming through detailed landscapes to the movement of wind-ruffled hairs on woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers.

Better still, the eye-popping technique is employed in support of an entertaining story that, while not terribly original, is sufficiently arresting and often laugh-out-loud funny. And best of all, there’s no time wasted on generic production numbers set to blandly kid-friendly tunes. For that alone, parents who watch “Ice Age” with their tykes will be eternally grateful.

Borrowing freely from the “Unlikely Allies on Noble Quest” template used so often in animated features, screenwriters Michael Berg, Michael J. Wilson and Peter Ackerman have cobbled together a reasonably eventful narrative involving ancient creatures and early humans.

It’s 20,000 years ago, give or take a millennium, and the ice age is dawning, thanks in part to the hyperactive antics of a prehistoric rodent — half squirrel, half rat, all nervous energy — named Scrat (voiced by Wedge himself). Manfred (Ray Romano), a crankily sarcastic woolly mammoth, doesn’t care to migrate south with the rest of the crowd, primarily because … well, just because. Besides, he’s too big for anyone to criticize his stubbornness.

Fortuitously, Manfred is in the wrong place at the right time to become reluctant protector of Sid (John Leguizamo), a careless sloth who chronically enrages much larger animals. (As one irritated beast snarls, “You’re a little low on the food chain to be mouthing off!”) Despite Manfred’s best efforts to go his own way, Sid repeatedly encumbers him. Which comes in handy, of course, when the odd couple discovers Roshan (Tara Strong), an abandoned human baby.

At first, Manfred wants nothing to do with the inconvenient offspring. (Much later in “Ice Age,” pic subtly and affectingly explains Manfred’s antipathy toward humans.) But when a smooth-talking saber-tooth tiger named Diego (Denis Leary) offers to take responsibility for Roshan, the incredulous mammoth rightly suspects the worst and opts to hang on to the little two-legged critter.

So Manfred joins Sid — who insists on calling him Manny — on a long trek toward the most likely settlement of the itinerant humans. Diego volunteers to lead them across the frigid landscape, biding his time until he can attend to his own not-so-hidden agenda.

“Ice Age” proceeds at an easy pace as three animals and a baby confront, among other things, a gaggle of death-wishing dodos, a firestorm of volcanic lava and, ultimately, Diego’s ill-tempered fellow predators. Along the way, there are hairbreadth escapes and scenic detours, along with the mildly suspenseful complications that inevitably arise when budding friendship forces an unsavory character to reconsider his loyalties.

Pic doesn’t attempt to be knowingly ironic or self-satirical (a la “Shrek”) when it comes to ticking off the list of animated-feature plot conventions. But there are many clever touches and tongue-in-cheek allusions (wink-wink references to Stonehenge and species extinction) to tickle attentive grownups, as well as a fleeting homage to the Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks “The Thing From Another World” that will amuse movie buffs.

Voice casting is inspired across the board. Romano engagingly conveys impatience and amusement as a reluctantly heroic curmudgeon, while Leguizamo makes Sid a borderline-insufferable but basically good-hearted pest. As Diego, Leary attempts something at once childishly simple and dauntingly complex — he tries to make an animated character’s arc dramatically and emotionally credible while still playing for laughs as that character’s voice — and he succeeds impressively.

As is frequently the case in animated features, all the humans on view look far less real than the beasts around them. Even cute little Roshan appears less lifelike than Scrat, the single-minded scamp who serves as a running sight gag while trying to bury his precious acorn. Latter character’s antics trigger an amusing epilogue that’s guaranteed to send auds out smiling.

Ice Age

Animated

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Blue Sky Studios production. Produced by Lori Forte. Executive producer, Christopher Meledandri. Directed by Chris Wedge. Co-director, Carlos Saldanha. Screenplay, Michael Berg, Michael J. Wilson, Peter Ackerman.

Crew

(Deluxe color); editor, John Carnochan; music, David Newman; production designer, Brian McEntee; supervising technical director, Dave Walvoord; character design, Peter de Seve; environmental design, Peter Clarke; sequence directors, Mark Baldo, Jan Carlee; lead animators, James Bresnahan, Michael Thurmeier; sound (Dolby DTS), Sean Garnhart. Reviewed at Edwards Grand Palace Cinema, Houston, Feb. 21, 2002. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 81 MIN.

With

Voices: Manfred - Ray Romano Sid - John Leguizamo Diego - Denis Leary Soto - Goran Visnjic Zeke - Jack Black Roshan - Tara Strong Rhinos - Cedric the Entertainer, Stephen Root Saber-Tooth Tigers - Diedrich Bader, Alan Tudyk Female Sloths - Lorri Bagley, Jane Krakowski Scrat - Chris Wedge

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