I don’t know whether it’s the film critic’s equivalent of Stockholm syndrome or I’m just becoming a beaten down old man quicker than expected (it’s been coming for a long time), but I’m pleased to report that The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature is, despite that title, a good little movie. Yeah, it’s your standard slobs vs. snobs story, with a hefty dose of “we need to stop that land developer!” thrown in for good measure, but it tweaks those formulas just enough to make them seem fresh.
With a strong anti-authoritarian streak and a very hard stance against musicals (both will always get a big thumbs up from me), this is a kiddie flick with something to say. It’s no Zootopia, but what it provides is a snappy story in a beautifully detailed environment with an almost nihilistic approach to how seldom we truly learn from our mistakes. While it stumbles a bit in the first act and falls victim to several tropes that would normally make me immediately turn on a film (the Climbing Villain, to cite just one), it more than makes up for all that simply by being the best-looking animated film currently in theaters.
My only real gripe is that Will Arnett, as lead squirrel Surly, seems as if he just can’t care about any of this in the slightest, phoning it in and barely making an impression in what could’ve been a more intense, outsized performance. Bobby Moynihan is great as the Mayor (license plate: EMBEZZLN), Jackie Chan is down to clown as Feng, leader of a secret killer elite squad of Chinatown mice, and Bobby Cannavale is perfect as Frankie the dog. The rest of the cast turns in serviceable performances for a film like this, although Maya Rudolph, so great in the otherwise miserable Emoji Movie, seems as if she has no idea what to do with her character, lead dog Precious, her tone and accent shifting from scene to scene, sometimes shot to shot. And Katherine Heigl continues her reign of cinematic terror, this time with her voice alone, but we’re at least spared her usual dead-eyed delivery.
The Bugs Bunny-inspired character designs, the manic background business in every shot, the third act showdown in the amusement park (in particular a great gag that reinvents the little kids in a trenchcoat trying to pass as an adult trick to truly bizarre effect) and just the fact that the filmmakers are taking maximum advantage of their medium to get as wild and inventive as possible while giving you a reason to care about these furry little critters are all reason enough to check this one out.
Open Road, while not nominally known for their children’s fare, seems to have a knack for splitting the difference between Daffy Duck and Buzz Lightyear, crafting these films and characters with the feel of old school cel-animated wackiness within the confines of the hideous, now ubiquitous 3-D design model. That’s about the best we can ask for these days. I’ll take it. Rated PG for action and some rude humor. Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande.