How does a kid flick about death earn $90 million? Ty Burr explains the dark story below the sunny surface of ''Ice Age''
Ice Age
Credit: Ice Age: © 20th Century Fox

How does a kid flick about death earn $90 million?

Does ”Ice Age” have subtext, or what?

There are a number of explanations for why the Twentieth Century Fox computer-animated kiddie comedy raked in nearly $90 million in its first 10 days. The promotional bandwagon started up back in what seems like 1999; between the posters and the teasers and the ads, it was on my daughters’ radar screens for so long that they finally got bored with asking when it was going to come out.

Cross-branding stunts like the Discovery Channel show ”Walking with Prehistoric Beasts” sold it to all those kids and grown-ups with unresolved dinosaur fetishes (true, the movie’s about prehistoric mammals, not reptiles, but this obsession’s an inclusive one). Oh, and there was that little ”Star Wars” trailer tacked on the front of ”Ice Age” — and only ”Ice Age” — which guaranteed several million more young males than might usually show up for a Ray Romano talking-mammoth movie.

Still, when you think about it, $90 million and counting is an awful lot of simoleons for a movie that’s basically about death, extinction, and ecological catastrophe.

I know, I know, it doesn’t seem to play that way. Yes, yes, it’s just a fun toddler time waster that can only be spoiled by some pinhead EW writer (and proud of it) overanalyzing it. Just because you may not see it, though, doesn’t mean it ain’t there — and not enjoyable to tease out.

Ironically, in ”Ice Age” the Ice Age hasn’t happened yet. It’s on its way: When the film opens, all the animals are headed desperately south in advance of the glaciers. The three main characters break off from the exodus for different reasons: Manfred the mammoth (Ray Romano) because he’s in a suicidal funk after his wife and child have been killed by human hunters (shown to us in cave-painting flashback); Diego the saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) because he’s supposed to bring a human baby back to the leader of his pride; and Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo) because he’s stupid.

Then the three fall in with the kid — shades of ”Monsters Inc.,” not to mention the old John Ford classic ”Three Godfathers” — and decide to not only protect him but return him to his tribe. (And why would they make a beeline for the one species that wants to wipe them all out? Because humans made this movie is the only reason I can figure.)

Anyway. In addition to the aforementioned mammoth-massacre flashback, there’s implicit death all over this thing. The kid’s mother drowns. One of the main characters pretty convincingly buys the farm until he is pretty unconvincingly resurrected. Over the whole movie hangs the specter of ecodisaster — of entire phyla with their backs against the wall. ”Return to Never Land” it ain’t.

Is a little darkness in a kiddie movie a bad thing? Of course not. On the contrary: Our culture often goes overboard in its efforts to shave the sharp corners off childhood. Is ”Ice Age” upsetting to children? Well, it depends on the kid: My sensitive 7-year-old hid her face whenever the saber-toothed tiger pride showed up, and she was sobbing at the farm-buying scene noted above. Her 5-year-old sister, meanwhile, sat through the movie without batting an eye; personally, I don’t think even the shower scene from ”Psycho” would rattle her much.

In fact, the best children’s movies often work against a background of tragedy: everything from ”Bambi” to ”Babe” has gained power from acknowledging that things can go horribly wrong. ”Ice Age,” though, does something different: It plunks an audience down amidst an apocalyptic setting, and then proceeds to ignore it, other than having its characters crack the stray, glib global-warming joke. Yeah, it’s a good kid movie. But there’s a heavier film inside struggling to get out, and who knows — that one might have made a great kid movie.

What did you think of ”Ice Age”?

Ice Age
  • Movie
  • 75 minutes