Strong-willed audiences who didn’t tap out of the “Ice Age” franchise after the first two films were rewarded with the memorable introduction of swashbuckling one-eyed weasel Buck Wild in “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.” The heroic and humorous Indiana Jones-esque character was a breath of fresh air for the series and its well-established group dynamic, aiding in the Paleolithic ragtag family’s quest to survive dangerous circumstances. Yet in director John C. Donkin’s stand-alone feature for Disney Plus, “The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild,” the intrepid adventurer is done a disservice. Instead of delivering a sensational serialized spin-off that would complement the captivating character, the filmmakers have misguidedly fashioned a subpar sequel.
Part of the problem is that the story’s sole focus isn’t on the titular hero. Donkin and screenwriters Jim Hecht, Will Schifrin and Ray DeLaurentis anchor their tale to the series’ legacy characters: married mammoths Manny (voiced by Sean Kenin Elias-Reyes) and Ellie (Dominique Jennings), sloth Sid (Jake Green), saber-tooth tiger Diego (Skyler Stone) and dimwitted daredevils Crash (Vincent Tong) and Eddie (Aaron Harris). The latter possum duo have been feeling smothered by their surrogate sister Ellie and are looking for a reprieve. While the rest of the herd are okay with the pair seeking independence, Ellie’s reluctant to let her family go — a familiar spin on what her husband went through in the previous picture, “Ice Age: Collison Course,” with their daughter (who doesn’t warrant a mention in this film) getting married.
Disobeying their sister’s wishes, Crash and Eddie set off on their own across the wilderness and unwittingly stumble back into the Lost World, a hidden prehistoric paradise populated by both dinosaurs and mammals, one of them being their pal Buck Wild (voiced by series stalwart Simon Pegg). They immediately have a run-in with ruthless, intelligent triceratops Orson (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who’s returned from exile and is out for revenge, plotting to rid the land of mammals to preserve the dinosaurs’ ecosystem.
Buck, who shares a dark past with the villainous egomaniac, knows that he needs to rescue his world, but can’t do so with the brothers hindering the mission. However, with no time to return the goofballs back to the herd, the bumbling buffoons tag along. They even enlist the help of Zee (Justina Machado), a witty, graceful zorilla who was on Buck’s superhero squad before it disbanded. As the new foursome learn to work together to defeat evil, the herd is left searching and resolving their issues.
Buck taking somewhat of a backseat in his own film is a counterintuitive idea that leads to some confusion as to this installment’s identity: Is it a spin-off, designed to appeal to a new generation because the former has aged out, or a sequel, attempting to build on brand familiarity? It doesn’t fulfill the promise of either. In the flashback montage when Buck explains his history with Orson, Buck’s diverse squad of superheroes battles Orson and fails. This seems to be the story the filmmakers should have explored, as there are greater stakes, poignancy and character arcs to that tale. When relegated to one sequence, those same elements aren’t given nearly enough weight and pathos to resonate.
Then there’s the matter of disability representation. Though Buck continues to be a positive portrayal of a character with a disability, incorporating it into his persona and never letting it hinder his physical or psychological journey, the story telegraphs an incongruous, wrong-headed message through its Bond-like villain. Orson, who struggles with having a literal giant brain — presented as a visible body abnormality — says his anger and vengeance manifested because he was mocked by others due to this physical difference. When he sees a wooden carving of himself, he makes a joke that’s not self-effacing, but hurtful because it encourages the audience to laugh at him rather than with him.
That’s not all. This chapter takes a giant leap backward in terms of aesthetic appeal, which looks akin to a late-stage pre-viz pass. And while there are certain shots that provoke an emotional pull, whether that be fear, sadness or wonderment, there’s a synthetic quality to them. It leaves us yearning for a full immersion into this world of make-believe. Environments lack depth and dimension, coming across flat and uninteresting. Fur and skin, unless in an exaggerated circumstance (like flying on the back of a pterodactyl), fail to show movement and tangible texture. Character expressions, which aren’t as pushed or comedically broad as others in the series, falter in conjuring the appropriate cues and reactions.
Unlike previous films in the franchise which were made with all ages in mind, Donkin’s feature skews a lot younger, with kiddie-capturing pratfalls and the inclusion of dinosaurs. And, while there are sweet, heartening sentiments for adults watching, with underlying commentary centered on bigotry, co-existence and conflict compromise, it’s difficult to overcome its poor quality aesthetics and ill-conceived notions. This one should’ve remained on ice.