For the first time in their still-infant 3-year history, Open Road Films dips its toes into the family-centered animation waters with "The Nut Job," a feature-length adaptation of writer-director Peter Lepeniotis' 11-minute 2005 short called "Surly Squirrel." Let's just say the studio has a long, long way to go before they are reigned the next Disney. Or Pixar. Or Dreamworks. The premise sound encouraging enough in concept, its heist plot setting itself up as a cross between 2000's "Small Time Crooks
" and 2008's "The Bank Job
"but with woodland creatures. Beyond the general idea, however, Lepeniotis and co-writer Lorne Cameron (2006's "Over the Hedge
") bring nothing to the material that is fresh or engaging. Animated films can be particularly tricky to get right; there must be a seamless potpourri of ingredients working together as a complete unit. One wrong pinch of something can throw the project off. "The Nut Job" has too many incorrect pinches to count. The writing is uninspired. Many of the actors are miscast. The protagonist is barely likable at all. That the picture ends with a cartoon caricature of musician Psy singing and dancing to "Gangnam Style" for no apparent reason as the end credits roll stinks of desperation. The filmmakers are clearly not interested in making a modern movie that will endure through the generations like, for example, the recent "Frozen
" undoubtedly will. Instead, it's all about pop-culture pandering and the distasteful need to somehow be considered "cool" by the single-digit masses. News flash: "Gangnam Style" was 2012's flash-in-the-pan version of "The Macarena," and it's now 2014.
"I'm no hero," says Surly (voiced by Will Arnett) in his opening voiceover. "I'm just a squirrel trying to get a nut." A rebellious guy with a faithful rat sidekick named Buddy (Rob Tinkler), Surly is self-serving to a fault, but secretly wants to be a part of his community. When a disastrous attempt at stealing a vending cart of nuts leads to the fiery destruction of the park's giant oak tree, the last of their fast-dwindling food supply goes up in flames with it. Promptly banished by group leader Raccoon (Liam Neeson) as a result, Surly sees little chance of making amends until he stumbles upon Maury's Nut Shop. Covertly breaking into the building and collecting enough nuts to last through the winter could be his one chance for forgiveness. What he does not realize is that the store is a front for a group of run-of-the-mill thieves looking to rob the First Oakton Bank across the street.
"The Nut Job" is a crummy way to start the new year's crop of animated releases. The problem is not the technical artistry on displaywhile not up to the impressive, detail-oriented heights of something like 2013's "Monsters University
," it is still certainly pleasing to look at and splashily huedbut everything else surrounding it. Comedic witticism is replaced by predictable physical pratfalls and bathroom humor. Thus, Surly smashes face-first into windows and steel storefront shutters. Flatulence features prominently on two separate occasions, the first of them a stretch-fart combo when Surly wakes in the morning. The heist of the title takes up the majority of the running time, but the ins and outs of such are not developed in an absorbing way. Mostly, it turns into a bunch of hectic scurrying around hyphenated by near-consistent failed attempts at laughs.
Surly is tough to crack, and tougher still to warm up to. As the hero of the piece, he can be selfish and too often abuse his power; one running groan-worthy gag has him threatening a pug named Precious (Maya Rudolph) with the dog whistle she doesn't like in order to control her. Were the character voiced by someone with an amiable sound and tone, perhaps he would be a little more disarming than his actions signal. Alas, Surly is performed by Will Arnett (2010's "When in Rome
"), whose hard, edgy vocal quality would work better for a villain. Shoehorned into an already morally shady protagonist, one who gradually learns the errors of his way, Arnett's line readings come off time and again as arrogant. As love interest Andie, Katherine Heigl (2013's "The Big Wedding
") is similarly ill-fitted to her animated counterpart, her voice feminine, to be sure, but also deep and sultry. When Heigl appears in a live-action movie, she is fine as the ingénue because she is able to bring so much more to the table than just the sound that comes from her mouth. When all of this is taken away, Heigl's vocals are tailor-made for a va-va-voomish vixen rather than a sympathetic, sweet-natured innocent. Liam Neeson (2012's "Taken 2
") is significantly better-suited for the stern authoritarian figure of Raccoon, but the leadsArnett and Heiglare harmed by their own casting in parts for which neither are right.
"The Nut Job" includes one attractively non-stereotypical figure, Grayson (Brendan Fraser), positioned at the onset as Surly's sort-of competition to win Andie's heart before revealing himself to be a genuinely kind and helpful friend to both. Grayson isn't just a winning presencemore winning, it should be said, than Surlybut symbolic of how director Peter Lepeniotis could have broken the mold of convention if he'd given the script a little more thought. Instead, the film is plainly mediocre and overly familiar, delving no deeper than the story's surface. Lame rather than clever and vicious for no good reasona highly suggestive scene in which Raccoon's aviary sidekick meets a nasty end by getting ripped to shreds by cat pageant contestants is unsettlingly cruel"The Nut Job" is hardly theatrical material. Undiscerning little ones in the audience might be okay with it since it's fast-paced and visually diverting, but there are so many more worthwhile, imaginative and teachable films out there for them that watching this one would be disadvantageous. Even five-year-olds are deserving of more than the kid-movie equivalent of a rotten nut.