For the record, this is the fourth Ice Age movie. I had to be told that it was only the fourth one because it feels like the 14th; because every time a new one shows up it also appears on cereal boxes and toys and Swiffer sheets and a million other places on which my eyes randomly land; because a year before that new one gets released there's inevitably a Scrat-themed short that's really just a teaser trailer attached to some other kid's movie; because 90 days after its theatrical release I see ads and renewed marketing for the Blu-ray; because it forms an annoying blur with the Madagascar movies and every other animated talking animal film about "what makes us family"; because I can't decide if it's hilarious or just weird that every day I drive down my block past a big poster of a wooly mammoth with the words NICKI MINAJ written on it in big bold letters; because I'm exhausted.

Another thing that's exhausted is whatever creative impulse drove the original film. Actually wait, no, I take that back. The creative impulse of the first film can't be exhausted because there wasn't one to start with. Every installment of this franchise is as empty as the one that preceded it. They are cartoon products meant to hook children into brand loyalty. They rely on the lowest difficulty level of conflict and a healthy supply of booger references to delight post-toddlers the world over. Every once in a while the franchise's most ingenious creation, Scrat, pops up to frantically chase that acorn, and he's genuinely great, a bonkers rat-squirrel that's part silent Daffy Duck and part meth addict. But they can't or won't create an entire feature devoted solely to his obsessive, manic, non-talking frenzy, so he's just the drop of Sriracha sauce that enlivens the mayonnaise sandwich.

I say this as a person who grew up watching and enjoying bad children's TV and movies. When I was six years old my mother took me to see a terrible thing called Santa and the Three Bears. It is, seriously, one of the very worst animated features ever created. Monumentally awful. I watched it last year for morbid curiosity's sake, to re-experience something that six-year-old me thought was a Saturday afternoon well spent. I was shocked by its ineptitude and contempt for its target audience of still-forming minds. It is a film that actively hates your child's eyes and ears.

And no single Ice Age movie approaches that level of badness. If that were the case nobody would see them and we wouldn't be subjected to four in a row. They are impeccably engineered. And that might be a more insidious problem. Because a depraved level of horrible can inform a child's aesthetic development for the better in the long game of a life engaged with media. It can be an outlying parameter by which other cultural products are measured. Kids do that, just like adults, even if they're not putting a name on it.

But the Ice Age movies are simply shiny and empty, reinforcing nothing. The plot of this one -- I was getting to it, just taking the long way around -- involves the continents splitting apart thanks to Scrat trying to break an acorn. The mammoths, who are involved in a typical teen-daughter-hates-her-parents argument, get separated and have to find each other. They do so and then everyone sings a song about what an amazing and unusual family they are. During this song the voice actors appear on screen as themselves, all of them, even Ray Romano, emoting the hell out of the bland lyrics. But not Denis Leary. He wears a deadpan grimace that suggests mortal embarrassment and/or the fact that he just drew the short straw and has to take his own little kids to see this movie while mom gets an afternoon at the spa. Maybe he's just exhausted, too.


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