With appreciably greater emphasis on action than its predecessors, and clever use of 3-D trickery to enhance storytelling as well as offer spectacle, “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” could prove the third time really is the charm by expanding an already sizable audience for a popular toon franchise. Fox may have taken a risk by positioning this latest series entry in the middle of summer season — both “Ice Age” (2002) and “Ice Age: The Meltdown” (2006) were March releases — but the gamble should pay off with beaucoup cold cash. Even more bountiful green will be harvested in ancillary outlets.

Once again, the plot is propelled by the extended family led by Manny (voiced by Ray Romano), the lovably neurotic woolly mammoth, who looms large in an Ice Age environment that, in this latest adventure, appears to have recovered nicely from the “Meltdown” of the previous pic.

This time out, Manny is so busy attending to Ellie (Queen Latifah), his very pregnant mate, that he lacks sufficient time and energy to deal with the personal crises of two other returning “herd” members: Diego (Denis Leary), the saber-toothed tiger who now fears he’s losing his edge after being domesticated; and Sid (John Leguizamo), the rambunctiously goofy sloth who yearns for respect and, if he’s really lucky, his own family ties.

Eager to find someone, anyone, who’ll look up to him, Sid adopts three baby dinosaurs hatched from eggs he’s found. Trouble is, those eggs were the spawn of an enormous Mommy Dino who emerges from her stomping grounds — an underground realm where supposedly extinct creatures are alive and well — to retrieve her offspring. She also takes Sid back down with her, causing Manny, Ellie, Diego and Ellie’s two precocious possum “brothers” — Eddie (Josh Peck) and Crash (Seann William Scott) — to follow.

Once the familiar characters are below ground, traipsing across a prehistoric landscape that appears equal parts “The Lost World,” “King Kong” and “The Land Before Time,” director Carlos Saldanha (returning from “The Meltdown”) adds another colorful figure to the franchise’s steadily expanding cast of characters: Buck, a swashbuckling weasel voiced with aptly madcap brio by Simon Pegg.

Long locked in an ongoing life-or-death struggle with a humongous albino dinosaur, Buck is more than just a tad mad. But that makes him all the more fun to watch during a series of exciting search-and-rescue sequences that are every bit as exciting as anything in any live-action pic on view in megaplexes this summer. Indeed, a high-flying encounter with rampaging pterodactyls might make the makers of “Star Trek” and “Wolverine” turn green with envy.

Even during those stretches where the pace isn’t breakneck and the escapes aren’t hairsbreadth, “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” impresses with vibrant CGI imagery and animation by the wizards at Blue Sky Studios. The addition of 3-D adds even more depth and detail to the mix, along with allowing the aud to enjoy the amusing illusion of snouts, paw, claws and beaks extending off the screen.

As was the case in the two earlier “Ice Age” toons, the vocal casting is excellent across the board. Romano and Leary are again standouts with their individual styles of sarcasm, but other returnees — including executive producer Chris Wedge as Scrat, the hyperactive rat/squirrel who this time finds something even more attractive than that elusive acorn — also are up to their usual high level.

Unlike many other contempo toons, “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” is short on jokey pop-culture references aimed at grown-ups more than than small fry. But there is at least one funny allusion to “The Flintstones,” and playful use of the old Lou Rawls standard, “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,” as everything from tango to comic counterpoint.

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

  • Production: A 20th Century Fox release of a Blue Sky Studios production. Produced by Lori Forte, John C. Donkin. Executive producer, Chris Wedge. Directed by Carlos Saldanha. Co-director, Michael Thurmeier. Screenplay, Michael Berg, Peter Ackerman, Mike Reiss, Yoni Brenner, from a story by Jason Carter Eaton. (Deluxe color, 3-D); editor, Harry Hitner; music, John Powell.
  • Crew: Character designer, Peter De Seve; art director, Michael Knapp; sound designer (Dolby DTS), Randy Thom; supervising sound editor, Gwendolyn Yates Whittle; CG supervisors, Bryan Useo, Michael Eringis; supervising animator, Galen Tan Chu; lighting supervisor, Haji Uesato; casting, Christian Kaplan. Reviewed at AMC Studio 30, Houston, June 21, 2009. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 93 MIN.
  • With: Voices: Manny - Ray Romano Sid - John Leguizamo Diego - Denis Leary Buck - Simon Pegg Ellie - Queen Latifah Crash - Seann William Scott Eddie - Josh Peck Gazelle - Bill Hader Pudgy Beaver Mom - Kristen Wiig Scrat - Chris Wedge