In a kind of Pleistocene twist on John Ford's “The Three Godfathers,” the visually impressive feature debut from director Chris Wedge (the Oscar-winning CG short “Bunny”) follows an antisocial woolly mammoth named Manfred (voiced by Ray Romano), his lazy-minded sloth sidekick Sid (John Leguizamo) and a prickly-natured saber-toothed tiger known as Diego (Denis Leary) as the mismatched animals attempt to return a human infant to his “pack” in the chilly wilds of North America some 20,000 years ago. This already-difficult quest is complicated by the fact that Diego is actually a spy for a gang of ferocious saber-tooths plotting to make a feast of the meaty Manfred at the first available opportunity.
The three-way buddy comedy at the story's core works effectively enough, but the film really shines during Looney Toons-esque manic set pieces such as the series of Herculean trials faced by the squeaking, show-stealing Scrat (a squirrel-rat hybrid) in trying to bury a nut in the frozen environment, or a melee between the heroes and a flock of dodos that humorously demonstrates why the survival-instinct-challenged birds weren't destined to remain on Earth. Leguizamo's slurred-speaking, troublemaking Sid is a particular delight, despite the fact that the animators' depiction of him pushes artistic license to a new level of biological inaccuracy by simply ignoring his species' trademark slow movements in favor of some very unslothlike springing and fast-clawing.
While “Ice Age's” straightforward talking-animal format is too routine to go tusk-to-tusk creatively with recent landmark CG films such as niche leader Pixar's celebrated “Toy Story” and “Monsters, Inc.,” there's enough cool fun here to warm the hearts of animation enthusiasts of all ages. Voiced by Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Goran Visnjic, Jack Black and Cedric “The Entertainer.” Directed by Chris Wedge. Written by Michael Berg, Michael J. Wilson and Peter Ackerman. Produced by Lori Forte. A Fox release. Animated/Comedy. Rated PG for mild peril. Running time: 80 min