Earlier this year the frenetic sugar-buzzed Lego Movie rocked the cinemas – an oddball story, wired humour, and instantly relatable characters made it a universal hit with audiences and set a new watermark for animated films. While The Nut Job hits our screens this month, its original US release (back in January) predates the Lego Movie. It is an uncharacteristically long delay to cross the Atlantic – and while a sunny summer release here may attract the right kind of audience, it also runs the risk of living a large Lego block shadow. It is exactly the kind of risky make or break scenario that fuels this animated heist.
The Nut Job doesn’t really beat around the bush – the animals of the park in Oakton must get enough food together, or they won’t survive the fast-approaching winter. Working together under the sagely advice of Racoon (Liam Neeson), all the squirrels, birds, moles, and groundhogs try unsuccessfully to fill the communal pot – except for the anti-hero Surly (Will Arnett), a self-sufficient squirrel who refuses to be part of Racoon’s system. As the safe confines of the park cannot meet their needs, the animals are forced to venture into the city to find an answer.
Oakton is the kind of provincial 1950s metropolis that seems attractive if you are human, but is a filled with all kinds of dangers if you are small and furry – back alley rats, guard dogs, unforgiving trams and blundering automobiles abound. And then of course there are the mafia – the solution to the food crisis comes in the shape of a nut shop, which is being used for cover by a bunch of gangsters set on plundering the bank vaults that lie across the street. The gangsters act as a neat element of the story that allows for some entertaining side-by-side heist gags – it stands out as a rare snippet of self-referential humour in a film that is essentially a celebration of the great tradition of slapstick.
Park favourite Grayson (Brendan Fraser) is a high-flying heroic squirrel that believes he can save the day, but his ambitions outweigh his ability and he is quickly established as a stooge. The only squirrel with a lick of sense is Andie (Katherine Heigl) who sees that in order to make the heist work they will need to utilise the unique skillset of Surly, and that involves winning him over to the Park’s side. It plays out as the most straightforward redemption story you can imagine. While it lacks the pizazz and on the ball humour we are coming to expect from animated films, there is an endearing simplicity to The Nut Job – something in the brew of family-friendly nut puns, slapstick idiocy, and 50s aesthetic that harkens back to the old Hanna-Barbera days. And while it is no Animal Farm, the story of Surly and Racoon certainly tries to say a little something about our individual relationships with order and governance. As enjoyable as it is forgettable, this won’t be a summer hit but it will certainly entertain.
Published in Dublin Gazette titles on Thursday 31st July 2014.