It must be tough to live in the shadow of Pixar Animation Studios -- the monolithic mainstay of the modern animation industry. Between the avalanche of Oscars, critical praise, and fan adoration, Pixar has set the bar so incredibly high that most rival studios simply work to stay afloat, but don't tell that to Blue Sky Studios, the CG animation house responsible for the 'Ice Age' franchise. With one sequel successfully tucked under their belt and a trilogy capper set for theatrical release in 2009, Blue Sky has managed to capture the imagination of kids and adults everywhere, and they didn't even need the Pixar logo to do it.
'Ice Age' tells the tale of a ragtag bunch of prehistoric critters that decide to return a lost human child to his family. Led by a grumpy woolly mammoth named Manfred (voiced by Ray Romano), this unlikely band of brothers includes a slow-witted sloth named Sid (John Leguizamo) and a manipulative saber-tooth tiger named Diego (Denis Leary). The three animals (four if you count Scrat, a sabre-toothed squirrel that pops up throughout the adventure) have to work together to overcome the harsh elements of the Ice Age, protect the child from a pack of vengeful saber-tooth tigers, and deal with their own insecurities and prejudices.
'Ice Age' blazes by in an instant -- at a mere 81-minutes, the story doesn't have a lot of time to waste piddling about from glacier to glacier. Thankfully, co-directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha use every second of the film to develop their characters and explore a bevy of complex emotions. The plot may be simplistic, but it works. Manfred has to work through his own bitterness, Sid has to battle low self-esteem, and Diego has to decide if his loyalties lie in his own sense of decency or in blind adherence to his own kind. It's surprisingly meaty material for a kids' film, but Wedge and Saldanha handle the dual-audience challenge with seeming ease. Likewise, the film's humor relies on slapstick and sight gags to send its younger crowd into fits of laughter while using subtle innuendo to keep adults chuckling too.
The film's achievements would be moot however, if not for the charming performances of its cast. Romano taps into the same shtick that made him famous, but it suits Manfred perfectly, giving the character a palpable edge that drives the story forward. Leguizamo, on the other hand, abandons any semblance of stardom to nail a elicit heartfelt balance of laughs and sympathy from his audience. Last but not least, Leary uses the crass inflections of his voice to ensure Diego is seen as a constant threat. I don't mean to overstate things, but his performance keeps the central conflict constantly at play. Combined with an eclectic supporting cast, the voice actors make the prehistoric world of 'Ice Age' feel modern, relevant, and relatable.
In the end, 'Ice Age' may have been shorter than I anticipated, but it succeeded in entertaining both me and my three-year-old son. While I'm working to reign in my parental bias (I tend to embrace any flick that my kid enjoys this much), I have to admit that 'Ice Age' comes closer to that indefinable "Pixar Magic" than other CG animated films in recent memory. It has a pleasant, effortless blend of humor, story, and character that earns it a spot in my personal collection.
Straight from the digital source, CG animated films are the go-to jaw dropper in retail outlets across the country. 'Ice Age' lives up to the reputation of its animated Blu-ray brethren with a pristine 1080p/AVC transfer that impresses from start to finish. The film's snowscape is bright and stable, allowing every color to leap off the screen. I couldn't take my eyes off the skies -- each cloud and burst of snow created a stunning, three-dimensional image that rivals the best CG transfers on the market. Contrast is comfortable, blacks are inky, and the image never suffers from artifacting, source noise, or compression inadequacies. Best of all, detail is exquisite, rendering Sid's fur, Scrat's acorn, and Manfred's long hair with exceptional clarity and sharp definition. Compared to its standard DVD counterpart, the Blu-ray transfer is an absolute godsend, revealing a smorgasbord of subtle textures and fine nuances in the animation that I had quite simply never noticed before.
So why the less-than-perfect score? A few minor issues managed to keep 'Ice Age' from standing with 'Cars' and 'Ratatouille' in the ranks of high-def perfection. To be specific, a handful of long shots were a bit soft, faint color banding popped up from time to time, and three brief scenes appeared to be murkier than the rest of the film. Still, these are mere blips on the radar that hardly detract from the overall experience. 'Ice Age' fans should be more than pleased with the near-reference results.
Matching the picture quality pound for pound is a commanding DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio track that announces its presence from the very beginning. Just listen to the subtle scritch-scratch of Scrat's paws against the ice and the scuffled gasps of his labored breathing. Now prepare for a literal eruption of sliding stone and snow that bring the entire track to life. It's in contrasting moments like these that the LFE channel and the rear speakers conspire to create a truly involving soundfield, as well as an immersive audible experience. It helps that the track's dynamics are stable and strong -- treble whines never waver and low-end tones thunder through the floor. Sound effects are also clean, fading from speaker to speaker with a transparency that caught my attention on more than one occasion. To top it all off, dialogue is crystal clear and carefully distributed across every channel, enhancing a soundscape that already sounds surprisingly realistic for an animated feature film.
If I feel the need to pipe up about anything it's that the track's directionality isn't as accurate as I would have liked. Take a moment to listen to individual elements of the soundscape during chaotic scenes -- the sound effects suddenly become nomadic in nature, blasting from several speakers at once to artificially enhance the tension of the moment. While it's rather effective, it's a cheap trick that undermines the film's otherwise careful sound design, but don't let my lone nitpick dissuade you -- I can confidently say 'Ice Age' sounds phenomenal and slaughters the Dolby track found on both standard edition DVDs.
Call me naïve, but I really thought Fox would pack 'Ice Age' onto a 50GB, dual layer disc and include the massive collection of extras that appeared on the original 2002 DVD and the 2006 Super Cool Edition DVD. Instead, the studio went with a 25GB disc, cut out the majority of the supplemental material from the original DVD, and abandoned all of the features from the Super Cool re-release. Be warned 'Ice Age' fans -- this is clearly a marketing decision made to ensure a feature-packed, double-dip Blu-ray edition can be released in the future.
'Ice Age' is a wonderful little family film that reels in kids and adults. It may not strike the same chords of perfection as Pixar's catalog, but it sets up an amusing world populated by a series of endearing characters. As a high definition release, this Blu-ray edition boasts a striking video transfer and an aggressive DTS HD Master Lossless Audio track. Unfortunately, Fox has elected to exclude the vast reservoir of supplemental material that appeared on the last two standard edition DVDs. Normally I would recommend a release of this caliber, but fans should brace themselves for the inevitable announcement of a feature-packed 'Ice Age' BD in the future.