What is it about little animated furry creatures that talk? It doesn't even matter what the movie is about -- give me a wisecracking meekrat or a lisping sloth named Sid, and I'm totally gobsmacked. So along with what seemed like the rest of America, I fell hook, line and sinker for 2002's 'Ice Age,' a charming all-animal arctic adventure and Fox's first foray into all-CGI animation. Utterly cute if rather inconsequential, the film notched up stellar box office, if still a rung or two below such all-time animated classics as 'Toy Story,' 'Finding Nemo' and 'Shrek.' But I, for one, was excited to see the sequel, if only because Pixar currently seems more infatuated with superheroes and cars, and we still have another year to wait for 'Shrek 3.' Plus, 'The Meltdown' promised to have a bit more of an eco-minded plot, which, combined with its returning great characters meant the sequel had a real shot at topping the original.
As 'Ice Age: The Meltdown' begins, the misfit trio of Manny the Mammoth (Ray Romano), Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo) and Diego the Sabretooth Tiger (Denis Leary) have all settled down comfortably in an isolated oasis with their other animal friends. However, an inconvenient truth emerges as the ice wall surrounding the valley is beginning to melt, which will let loose a massive body of water behind it and flood the valley. When their only chance of survival is a boat way at the other end of the valley, the trio begin the trek to save their world. Along the way, they meet a female mammoth named Ellie (Queen Latifah), who is convinced she's a possum like her "brothers." While the strange group soldiers on, they must learn to get along, even as Manny struggles with a growing attraction to Ellie.
Maybe I'm in the minority, but I did slightly prefer 'The Meltdown' to the original 'Ice Age.' The sequel hits all the same notes, but successfully adds new characters and expands their world. The great byplay between Manny, Sid and Diego is just as witty and the visuals just as spectacular, but the story is even more emotionally resonant and timely. The addition of Ellie is also an inspired idea, adding a new dynamic to the male-dominated trio without dragging the film down with too much romantic hooey (don't worry, the kids won't be bored). Even better, all the same voice cast is back and, if quite comfortable in their roles, they are not too comfortable, still bringing an enthusiasm and vigor to the new tale.
Truth be told, 'Ice Age: The Meltdown' doesn't really do anything new. But where the characters in 'Ice Age' seemed like babes in the woods (er, the frozen tundra), 'The Meltdown' is really an adolescent coming-of-age story. Similar to themes in 'The Lion King' and 'Lilo & Stitch,' Manny and Diego need to mature if they are going to save their village and, in Manny's case, get the girl. (Sid, thankfully, remains exactly the same.) Not to make too much out of it, but it is nice to see a "family film" that genuinely attempts to say something positive and poignant about human nature. Combined with an eco-friendly message that is obvious but not heavy-handed, 'Ice Age: The Meltdown' is one of the better animated features to come out of Hollywood recently. I, for one, greatly look forward to 'Ice Age 3.'
Fox brings 'Ice Age: The Meltdown' to Blu-ray in a 1.85:1 widescreen, 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer encoded at 18mbps on a BD-25 single-layer disc. Despite all that technical mumbo-jumbo, the results are really very lovely. Though I was quite pleased with such previous animated next-gen releases as 'Monster House,' 'The Polar Express' and 'Corpse Bride,' I think 'Ice Age' just may be my favorite, though that may be in part because it is such a bright, colorful-looking film.
This transfer's most immediately striking aspect is how three-dimensional it looks. Just about every shot has a wonderful sense of depth to it, with excellent use of foreground and background that really accentuates the lush arctic landscapes. Of course the all-CGI "source material" is absolutely perfect, with a crystal-clear clarity not degraded by any uses of artificial film grain or other digital tweaks. Blacks are rich and pure, and the slightly high-contrast cast well-suited to a film whose primary color is white. Hues are still very lush, especially the vivid orange-brown animal furs and icicle-cool blues.
Note that there some of the long-shots of horizons and the like can look "posterized" with subtle gradations of color lost, though I suspect this is more an intended animation technique than a problem with the transfer or the compression. If I have any nitpick, it is that on rare occasions I could detect a very slight bit of noise, though not on large patches of solid color but rather on the faces of a few of the animal characters. There are also a couple of very minor instances of the "jaggies" -- for example, in one pull-out of a horizon line near the beginning of the film there was a shimmering for a few seconds on the edges of some of the icebergs. But each of these nitpicks are very minor, and for the vast majority of its runtime, 'Ice Age: The Meltdown' looks terrific.
Fox again offers up a Blu-ray release whose sole English audio option is a DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 surround track. (I thought it was mandated by the Blu-ray spec to include a Dolby Digital option as well, but what do I know?) Unfortunately, as of this writing no current Blu-ray players or A/V receivers offer DTS-HD decoding. That will change very soon with the arrival of the PlayStation 3 and other new players and receivers, but in the meantime there is no way to access the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on this disc at full resolution. So what you are going to hear without DTS-HD decoding is the core, lossy DTS soundtrack at a healthy 1.5mbps.
But no worries -- 'Ice Age: The Meltdown' sounds almost as good as it looks. The punchy sound design and bright dynamics make for a downright cheerful experience. I enjoyed the cute, chirpy discrete effects in the rears, and John Powell's upbeat music score nicely bleeds to the rears without ever overpowering the action. Dialogue has been perfectly recorded, so voices and volume levels have been ideally balanced -- I never had to reach for my remote to compensate. Low bass is also rather forceful, though the majority of 'Ice Age' is rather subdued, and there are no song-and-dance numbers a la Disney. That sometimes results in some aurally dull passages in 'The Meltdown,' with a lot of front heavy dialogue and no real atmosphere. But when the soundtrack comes alive, it really works quite nicely.
Despite being a lowly BD-25 single-layer disc, Fox has packed a good number of supplements on 'Ice Age: The Meltdown.' Granted, most of the stuff here is kid-oriented, but there is also enough behind-the-scenes info that adult fans should be fairly pleased as well. And note that all of the animated shorts and bonus films are presented in full 1080p video, and look terrific. Kudos to Fox.
Let's start with the stuff for the kids. "Ice Age Arcade" contains two interactive, remote control-activated games perfect for the pre-teen set. "Factoid Meltdown" is a straightforward trivia challenge, while "Who's Your Buddy?" is also a Q&A puzzler, only with audio cues and a surprise at the end. Neither game seemed any different than the versions on the standard-def DVD release of the film.
Next are a series of animated shorts and "lost films." These are cute little vignettes that are all worth watching -- I suspect both kids and adults will get a kick out of them. The "lost films" are particularly amusing, with each a black and white "vintage" educational short about a different animal character in the film. There's "Sloth: Nature's Lovable Lisper," "Wooly Mammoth: Nature's Beast of Burden," "Saber-Toothed Squirrel: Nature's Nutty Buddy," "Saber-Toothed Tiger: Nature's Fearsome Feline," "Vulture: Nature's Cleaners" and "Possum: Nature's Spunky Spectacles." There are also two genuine shorts, "No Time for Nuts" and the four-part "Crash & Eddie Stunts & Outtake" reel. This is all great stuff.
Skewing a bit older in appeal are two effects breakdowns. "Animation Director's Chair" offers up five scenes presented in four various stages of animation, from storyboards through three levels of more advanced rendering. "Scrat's Smackdown Sound Effects Lab" shows four different scenes with the sound effects isolated (sans dialogue and score). The "Animation Director's Chair" offers a good hint at how Blu-ray offers a more seamless experience than standard DVD ever could -- selecting different views of the animation is instaneously smooth, without any stuttering or clunkiness. Well done.
Finally, the last of the main extras are only for those of at least driving age. Two audio commentaries are included, the first with director Carlos Saldanha and the second with producer Lori Forte, and no less than ten(!) crew members, including the lead animators, art director and sound designer. The crew track is definitely for those interested in computer animation -- it is completely tech-oriented, dissecting each and ever shot, from how it was conceptualized to rendered to tweaked in post production. The director track is probably a lot more accessible to mainstream viewers. Saldanha has a pleasant voice and is easy to listen to. Unfortunately, he largely falls into that old commentary trap of simply repeating what is happening onscreen, or providing motivations for the characters actions that are totally obvious to even a six year-old. Things do pick up later on in the track, as Saldanha talks more about working with the cast, and the film's more overarching themes. Too bad that it is a bit hard to get that far without nodding off a bit...
Last but not least, we have a trailer gallery, which includes spots for 'Ice Age: The Meltdown' as well as other Fox Blu-ray titles. And for your Simpsons fans, there is also a "Sneak Preview" teaser for the upcoming 'Simpsons: The Movie.' Fox is apparently quite gung-ho on this one, so much so that the promo even gets top billing right on the main menu.
'Ice Age: The Meltdown' is a lot of fun, and for me easily matches the appeal of the original. It also is topical but not heavy-handed, at least if you've seen Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth.' So Fox's first day-and-date Blu-ray release is most welcome. This four-star release boasts a great transfer and soundtrack, and a solid assortment of supplements. Sure, there probably could have been more, as well as some genuine HD bonus content, but this is a very nice effort all around. Recommended.