‘Ice Age: Collision Course’ and the Flat Familiarity of Family Franchises

Familiarity is king in family filmmaking – and filmmaking in general.

Here’s how disposable the Ice Age movies are: the newest installment, Collision Course, is the fifth in the series, and before looking it up on IMDb to write this, I swear to God I thought it was the fourth.  And I have a child. Its creators at Blue Sky Studios and distributors at 20th Century Fox have somehow managed to convince themselves that they’ve got a durable franchise on their hands, some kind of prehistoric Toy Story, when it’s abundantly clear that Ice Age is merely to a thin premise full of one-note characters voiced by peaked-in-the-‘90s personalities. But it’s familiar, and familiarity is king in family filmmaking – and filmmaking in general.

The problem, in the case of an “oh, right, that exists” property like Ice Age, is it operates under the presumption of leftover affection and fond memories, and seriously, they’re overestimating their reach. The cast has inflated considerably, from the original trio of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, and Denis Leary to include Queen Latifah, Jennifer Lopez, Seann William Scott, and others; Simon Pegg’s “Buck” the weasel, introduced in the third film but absent from the fourth, is returned to the screen with all the fanfare and ballyhoo of a Smiths reunion. Joining the “fun” this time around are such modestly more “of the moment” personalities as Nick Offerman, Max Greenfield, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Michael Strahan, and Adam Devine at his “lovable” dudebro worst.

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The plot is nonsense and the underlying themes, of forgetful husbands and nagging wives and father Manny wanting his grown daughter to “just say our little girl forever,” are annoyingly retrograde. “Scrat” the nut-chasing saber-toothed squirrel is back for more Chuck Jones rip-off homage, this time with a head-scratching adventure on a thawed-out UFO (yes, really) that allows them to rip off pay homage to Duck Dodgers.

But ultimately, like nearly every non-Disney or Pixar animated flick since Shrek, Collision Course essentially spends 90 or so minutes bumbling along on bad puns, celebrity voice-spotting, and anachronistic pop culture references (“They’re saying hashtag, but it’s the Ice Age, haw haw haw!”), and there’s a big dance number at the end, and then we can go home. Yet I’ll give it this much: it’s bright and fast and loud and the 3D is often neat. It’ll occupy your kids for part of a Saturday, which is what these films are so often about anyway.

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And that also explains why we keep getting additional installments of franchises like Ice Age, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, and the like – because for a certain age of viewer, if it’s new, they’re through. Our three-year-old asked to leave about 20 minutes into Zootopia, because she didn’t know who these characters were, but she’ll eagerly stay in her seat through revival screenings of movies we watch at home, or a sequel to a favorite, like Finding Dory. (She did, however, check out about an hour into Ice Age: Collision Course. Even she has her limits.) And if you look at the box office for the Ice Age films thus far, the motivation isn’t blurry; they average $182 million domestic, and I encourage you to take a look at Collision Course’s receipts Monday morning, place them alongside those of a genuinely adventurous family picture like The BFG, and try not to despair.

Occasionally a new family movie will perform, of course; they have to, so they can prompt some sequels. The Secret Life of Pets, for example, has done huge business, though its much-noted echoes of other properties makes it a little difficult to label it altogether “original,” and it had the draw (for kids who don’t know any better, at least) of a Minions short to bring in that existing audience. And Disney and Pixar put up giant numbers with Inside Out and Zootopia, respectively, though parents will take their kids to nearly anything carrying those logos (nearly anything). But with Pixar cranking out more sequels than originals (four of their last seven releases have been second or third installments; their next four slated releases are Cars 3, Toy Story 4, The Incredibles II, and one original) and new sequels in the pipeline for The Croods, How to Train Your Dragon, Despicable Me, Wreck It Ralph, and Frozen, it seems animated filmmakers are gearing their output entirely to the limited engagement patterns of three-year-olds.

Then again, take a look at the live-action slate of any major studio. They all seem to think we’re all three-year-olds too.

Ice Age: Collision Course is out today.