Nut Job: Fun, But Politically Uneven
By Sandra Olmsted
In director Peter Lepeniotis’ Nut Job, an ambitious extension of his 2005 animated short, “Surly Squirrel,” Surly (voice of Will Arnett), a lazy, reckless, and self-centered individual, lives in the idyllic-looking Liberty Park in the city of Oakton, which evokes late 1950s Americana.
As in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Raccoon (voice of Liam Neeson) keeps a tight fisted-control over the ironically named park and its inhabitants and proclaims, “Animals are controlled by the amount of food they have.” So, when Surly accidentally burns up all the food that Raccoon has stored for the winter, the squirrel is exiled to the mean streets of downtown Oakton.
However, Surly soon lands on his paws and plans to knock over the nut cart run by a street vender; until, he spots a bigger target, Maury’s Nut Store. There’s only one problem: The guys running Maury’s are planning a heist of the bank across the street and using the nut store as a cover for their tunneling. Surly has some new friends.
Andie (voice of Katherine Heigl), who is is the good angel on Surly’s shoulder, tries hard to get him to do the right thing if gets the nuts, and Grayson (Brendan Fraser), a slightly delusional, self-aggrandizing rodent. Maya Rudolph as Precious, a bug-eyed pug owned by the bank robbers, is the one bright spot among the characters; otherwise, the casting makes for poor chemistry and awkward interaction. These are any of them bad actors, just bad combinations.
The double heist, which is clever idea, works well with the film noir undertones of the film, and the intercutting between the parallel stories helps keep the film moving. The slapstick action and violence, however, evokes those Looney Tunes such as the Road Runner cartoons, and plenty of rascally explosions, smashings, electrifications, etc. are portrayed as impish physical humor. In addition to the Orwellian themes, the filmmakers draw heavily on Warner Bros. cartoons, Scrat from Ice Age,Remy from Ratatouille, the ensemble cast of Over the Hedge, and every live action heist movie ever made for a mix bag with little originality. To add to the odd mix of gangsters, slapstick, and characters, a Gangnam -style dance number, starring an animated version of South Korean pop star Psy, plays with the credits, and is probably a nod to the Korean investment in the film.
In a Darwinian sense, the unsympathetic Surly should triumph because he’s smarter and more ambitious than the other animals, and he spend most of the film clearly angling to get the nuts only for himself and having no plans to replace the food stores he destroyed. In addition to the survival-of-the-fittest and -luckiest themes, an anti-consumerism and anti-socialism messages are also introduced; however, Lepeniotis does not fully develop the Darwinian, economic, nor political ideas. In fact, he tries to please all of the people all of the time. The double heist, couple with the film noir style, is a good idea, but it isn’t done as well or as fully as it should be. Considering the unclear political messages, the title is maybe a little too on the nose.
Despite its unevenness in almost every way, Nut Job has a few things to recommend it: The slapstick humor isn’t pabulum, it’s fun and funny, and the work of art director Ian Hasting in creating the autumn season and late 1950s milieu is delightful. The 3D is primarily used to throw things out of the frame at the audience, so buy an extra treat and see it in 2D. A Canadian-Korean production release by Open Road Films, Nut Job is rated PG for mild action and rude humor, runs 86 minutes, and is in theaters now! (More of Olmsted’s reviews can be found at <www.thcnematicskinny.com>.)
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