Fox’s wildly popular prehistoric toon series shows no sign of extinction in “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” an amusing, adds-nothing fourth chapter in which Manny and his woolly mammoth family find their lives disrupted by the separation of Pangaea — an event that occurred roughly 200 million years before their time. Not that scientific accuracy has been a terribly high priority for the likable if soft-brained franchise, coming off a top-grossing installment co-starring dinosaurs. Now, the action takes to the sea, where pirates, original songs and a minx-like Jennifer Lopez character make for harmless diversion unlikely to rival earlier B.O.
As per usual, pic opens with Scrat, as the saber-toothed squirrel’s quest for the elusive acorn splits the ice, then the continents and eventually Manny’s family. Kids will recognize (but probably won’t mind) the repetition of the frazzled rodent’s opening-comedy routine from an earlier self-standing short, “Scrat’s Continental Crack-up,” which Fox attached to “Gulliver’s Travels” in 2010, while a later lost-at-sea vignette repeats a short shown before “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked.”
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Recycling seems to be the spirit of the day, seeing as how this motley ensemble of characters has slipped into an almost sitcom-like mold with each new sequel feeling more like an extra-long Looney Tunes cartoon than a fully developed feature. The principal change since the first “Ice Age” outing has been the shift from an honorary family composed of misfit friends Manny (voiced by Ray Romano), Diego (Denis Leary) and Sid (John Leguizamo) to the real thing, now that Manny and Ellie (Queen Latifah) have a daughter, Peaches (Keke Palmer), who’s old enough to start thinking about boys.
Before her crush can progress to the dating stage, a massive earthquake separates Manny and his original “Ice Age” mates from the rest of his woolly mammoth clan, creating an all-too-common kidpic situation in which life-threatening events teach an overly protective parent to chill out. Stranded on a block of ice sent drifting out to sea, the trio is joined by Granny (Wanda Sykes), the wisecracking elder stateswoman of Sid’s long-lost family, which reappears just long enough to unload the toothless old lady into Sid’s care.
That essentially leaves Diego as the only original character without kin, though the film soon remedies that situation by introducing a love interest in the form of Shira (Lopez), a silver saber-toothed tigress the group encounters at sea. As it turns out, the “Ice Age” gang aren’t the only mammals stranded in the ocean, though the others who’ve managed to survive have less friendly intentions, their booty-looting agenda dictated by a mangy orangutan named Capt. Gutt (Peter Dinklage, outdoing Aardman with the year’s most entertaining animated-pirate voice).
Of the leading toon studios, Blue Sky has most enthusiastically embraced the concept of stereoscopic 3D as an opportunity to deliver roller-coaster-style thrills; the film’s continent-splitting and swashbuckling threads serve as little more than the thin plank its characters must walk before plunging into slides, rides and other dynamic activities designed to take full advantage of the added dimension. As such, the script will likely bore anyone above the age of 10, even as it spares younger tykes the tedium of nuanced story and characters.
While the pirate plot capitalizes on the current popularity of scurvy sea criminals among family auds, there’s nothing new or memorable about this particular bunch. Instead, directors Steve Martino and Michael Thurmeier keep things moving by punctuating the episodic plot with a song or some funnier-than-usual comic relief. Peaches receives a mild lesson in the perils of peer pressure, though the film’s more satisfying message suggests even a screw-up like Sid can redeem himself.
The typically high-end look of Blue Sky’s animation hasn’t changed much since “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” though it’s leagues beyond where the series began a decade ago, with Peter de Seve’s wonderfully wonky character designs holding up brilliantly as the animators bend, stretch and otherwise abuse these critters. While much of this installment has a been-there, done-that feel, the sight of Scrat holding his breath underwater or Sid paralyzed by a lotus berry rank among the series’ more inspired moments.