All through the winter olympics, Chris Wedge watched in fear. On the one hand, he was thrilled to see the ads for Ice Age, the computer-animated comedy that marks his feature-film directing debut. (It enters the box office slalom on March 15.) But what if the worst had happened? ”That’s all we needed, for someone to blow up Michelle Kwan or something,” says the lanky, finger-drumming 44-year-old, his eyes set in dark circles from a long production grind. He laughs, recognizing the absurdity of such self-concern. But he can’t censor the weight of his anxieties. ”That’s what I was afraid of. Michelle is skating and boom! — suddenly there’s a crater in the ice. And then our commercial comes up.”
Welcome to the angst-ridden, high-stakes world of computer-generated-cartoon competition. Never mind that the genre seems like a can’t-miss proposition right now, from the pioneering Disney/Pixar partnership (the Toy Story films, A Bug’s Life, and Monsters, Inc.) to DreamWorks’ acquisition of Pacific Data Images (Antz and Shrek) to Paramount’s low-budget surprise hit Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. (Only Sony bombed with Final Fantasy, a non-cartoony attempt at virtual humans.) Somehow, the upbeat track record just seems to raise the fear factor.
”Did you see [the movie] with an audience? How’d the humor play?” asks Ray Romano, star of CBS’ Everybody Loves Raymond and the voice of Ice Age’s acerbic woolly mammoth, Manfred. ”I’m very nervous about that, ’cause y’know, Shrek was so edgy, kind of inside-funny.”
Anybody who’s seen the Ice Age trailer featuring a desperate little Scrat (part squirrel, part rat) accidentally cracking open a massive glacier knows that Ice Age has, at least in part, an edge of its own — a brassy, Tex Avery air more reminiscent of classic Warner Bros. ‘toons than of Disney. The Scrat’s wordless mishaps weave through the story’s more conventional, talking-animal main arc, which was first pitched in early 1997 by a producer at Twentieth Century Fox’s animation division as a sort of Three Mammals and a Baby. As with most animated films, it’s all about the embellishments, but the basic story line teams Manfred with a dopey sloth named Sid (voiced by John Leguizamo) and a double-dealing saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) as they try to return an orphaned human infant to its tribe.
Fox originally conceived the movie as a 2-D, hand-drawn project. But by late ’98, Disney and Pixar had released A Bug’s Life around the same time DreamWorks and PDI opened Antz, both of which did great business in a crowded family-friendly season that also included The Rugrats Movie and DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt. With the audience expanding, Fox thought, why not try to set a bigger table? Fox already owned a small CG studio called Blue Sky, headquartered in sleepy Harrison, N.Y., which handled TV ads and special effects for such movies as Alien Resurrection. When director Chris Wedge, Blue Sky’s leading artistic light, won an Oscar in 1999 for the short Bunny — notable for its strikingly realistic fur and lighting, looking more like puppet animation than CG — Fox anted up with the major cash infusion needed to expand Blue Sky’s capabilities. (Fox’s total investment so far: roughly $60 million, twice what it cost to make Paramount’s $80 million grosser Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, but only about two-thirds the budget of Toy Story 2.)