The fourth "Ice Age" film has the same easy good nature typical of the decade-old animated franchise. While the first fans of the 2002 original have long aged out of the target audience for these celebrity-voiced prehistoric mammals, new recruits are likely being minted via DVD and download.
It's easy to see why. For children, there's the appeal of the prehistoric animals, broadly drawn characters, simple stories, diverting but mild action. Though "Ice Age: Continental Drift" is rated PG for mild violence, there's nothing here that a reasonably sophisticated 4-year-old couldn't handle.
For parents, the movies are remarkably easy to take. While the "Ice Age" movies lack the pop culture savvy that defines other enduring animated series, such as "Shrek" and "Toy Story," there's something comfortable and reassuring about their middle-of-the-road appeal and moral simplicity.
As ever, this installation starts with the peripheral character of Scrat the squirrel chasing an elusive acorn. Somehow, these shenanigans wind up with Scrat's spindly legs whirling the iron core of the earth like a hamster wheel, leading to the breakup of continents from a single land mass. (Children might have to unlearn this novel theory of plate tectonics somewhat later in life, but that's a problem for another day.)
The sudden geologic cataclysm wreaks havoc on the comfortable lives of the animal herd, including the trio of Manny the mastodon (voiced by Ray Romano), Diego the saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) and Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo). The three are cast adrift at sea, with Sid's irascible grandmother (Wanda Sykes) along for the ride.
They're separated from the rest of their group, which is seeking a land bridge away from the collapsing homeland. Manny's spunky daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer) also is seeking the attentions of a cute mammoth in the cool set. At the same time, her best friend Louis, a tiny mole voiced by Josh Gad, is trying without success to bid for her romantic attentions.
On the open ocean, Manny and friends are attacked by a band of buccaneers, led by the vicious simian, Captain Gutt. Voiced by the excellent Peter Dinklage, who is enjoying breakout success as the diminutive Tyrion Lannister on HBO's "Game of Thrones," this piratical ape is the best thing about "Continental Drift." His leering eyes, yellow teeth and murderous savoir faire give him a kind of Grinch-like menace. Among his band is Shira (Jennifer Lopez), a saber-toothed tiger who wants to be loyal to her imperious lord but is somewhat ambivalent about the life of a pirate.
Will Manny, Diego, Sid and Granny be able to outwit these marauders, reunite the peaceable animal herd and lead them to safety? Will young Peaches learn that it's lame to betray her most faithful friend in order to be popular with the cool kids? Will Shira decide that being part of an animal group that somehow manages to dispense with Darwinian modes of survival is better than piracy?
Without spoiling the ending, it's safe to say that "Continental Drift" will satisfy all the narrative expectations of its young audience.
TITLE: "Ice Age: Continental Drift"
CREDITS: Directed by Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier. Written by Michael Berg and Jason Fuchs
RATING: PG for very mild violence
RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS