B-Level Story Sinks Finely Animated ‘The Nut Job’

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CHICAGO – It feels like when any studio besides Disney or Pixar does an animated film with celebrity voices, there is a little less lacquer on it. What the other two remember, and others forget, is that it starts with a script. All the toon landscapes in the world can’t fix a dull story.

“The Nut Job” is a case in point. It looks lovely, with well-defined characters and scenic composition – set in the “Guys and Dolls” era of caper heists. But the story lacks substance or verve, and there were stretches of dead audience silence in the preview screening. Not a good sign, because the room was populated by the target audience of kiddies. Also, the film steals gags from the Warner Brothers era of animation, in more of a rip-off than a tribute. All these poisonous bits add up to a long 86 minutes. That’s right, a loooooooong 86 minutes. Parents, beware.

The central park in the midsize city of Oakton has a number of animal inhabitants, including squirrels Grayson (voice of Brendan Fraser), Surly (Will Arnett) and Andie (Katherine Heigl), in addition to Raccoon (Liam Neeson) and Mole (Jeff Dunham). They are gathering food for the winter, but Surly won’t cooperate and is banished from the park kingdom to the big bad city.

Katherine Heigl, Will Arnett
Andie (voice of Katherine Heigl) and Surly (Will Arnett) Get Busy in ‘The Nut Job’
Photo credit: Open Road Films

This leads to a discovery by the Surly Squirrel. The nut factory has all the food he could possibly use for years, if only he can get inside. This information filters to the rest of the park, and Andie begs him to split the loot. All this is complicated by a gang of heist men, who are using the nut factory as a way to get into the bank next door. The only thing standing between them and an encounter with the furry creatures is a dog named Precious (Maya Rudolph).

This is basic conflict narrative structure, and the film is clearly targeted towards the kids. The good animals are noble, evil animal/humans may or may not be who they are, Surly is misunderstood, Precious is precious and so on. There is nothing new or exciting in this adventure, which relies on cartoon standards that have been around since Walt Disney was skinny. Most irritating – at least to the parents and cartoon buffs in the audience – is the obvious heist of the old Warner Brothers cartoon physical comedy.

Regardless of that, the voice talent also has a “B”-level quality to it. The celebrity voices are familiar, but not that high a star quality (Liam Neeson fans, take it to social media!). We can actually hear Arnett sweat the voice of Surly, it actually gets that nervy. Fraser wore out the hero/dumb act in his “George of the Jungle” days. Heigl is taking on the mantle of that late career Ned Beatty Rule – if he (or now she) is associated with the movie, don’t see it.

Also there is the Mike Myers/Steve Carrell Corollary. The producers hire these brand names to sell the animation, and suddenly they show up and start doing their crazy accents. It worked with “Shrek” and “Despicable Me,” but now Rudolph, Jeff Dunham (stick with the puppets!) and Brendan are doing the same voice practice in this film. So irritating.

Maya Rudolph
Precious (voice of Maya Rudolph) Acts Her Name in ‘The Nut Job’
Photo credit: Open Road Films

But this is animation, and like the new Chicago Cub mascot, it’s for the kids. The animated climate the production created is pretty cool, sort of a late 1940s last-gasp-of-masked-robbers universe. There is a wish they’d done something more with it, because the animals all act modern (fart joke alert!). The human “dame” in the picture is named Lana, looks like a blonde Lana Turner, and is voiced – by Sarah Gadon – like the “Guys and Dolls” character Adelaide (“a person can develop a cold”). The fall colors are also very nice.

What is most amazing is that even as films get shorter in our less-attention-span culture, that still 86 minutes can feel long. It is “The Nut Job” that accomplishes this slowdown of time, yet at the same time they can never give it back. Beware!

“The Nut Job” opens everywhere on January 17th. See local listings for 3D showings. Featuring the voices of Will Arnett, Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson, Katherine Heigl, Maya Rudolph, Jeff Dunham and Sarah Gadon. Screenplay by Lorne Cameron. Directed by Peter Lepeniotis. Rated “PG

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2014 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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