The era when cartoons were mainly for children is long gone. Even when Looney Toons were still broadcast, children may have enjoyed the slapstick antics, but it was the adults that got the jokes. And with Pixar leading the way in animated film, any animation company that wants to play ball has some stiff competition. So it is with a little bewilderment that The Nut Job offers the presentation it does; it has beautiful visuals that can compete with any other recent animated film, but it lacks the rich storytelling and genuine humor of its peers, rendering the production as something only very small children can appreciate.
Surly (voiced by Will Arnett) is a curmudgeon of a squirrel. He kicks birds off telephone wires, ransacks nests and never shares food with the other animals living in the park. His only friend is a very quiet, but very loyal rat named Buddy (voiced by Rob Tinkler). When Surly’s latest caper goes awry, he accidentally sets fire to the park’s food supply, threatening the community’s winter survival. The leader of the park, Raccoon (voiced by Liam Neeson), tired of Surly’s antics, banishes him to the city to fend for himself. While trying to survive, Surly discovers a store that sells nuts, so he hatches a plan to steal the nuts for himself. In his way, however, is a small group of human bank robbers who are using the store as a base of operations for their upcoming bank heist – and they don’t like park animals. So it’s up to Surly and a ragtag group of animals sent from the park to help, including a squirrel named Andie (voiced by Katherine Heigl), to get in and get out with the goods before the humans catch them.
The animation looks fantastic, and the animators have done a fabulous job of capturing all of the animal-centric motions in the characters. So when Surly flicks his ears like a real squirrel would, it’s hard not to marvel at the verisimilitude. The exaggerations are also handled smartly and sparingly. So while there’s an obvious cartoony sheen layered over everything, the big bug eyes and broken bodies that snap back into place are saved only for extreme moments. Overall, The Nut Job has a very pleasing art direction that’s easy on the eyes.
Unfortunately, the film wastes the wonderful visuals on a simplistic story that has very few genuine laughs. The plot is very straightforward and doesn’t offer any satisfying subplots on a story or character level. For example, one of the park animals is a squirrel named Grayson (voiced by Brendan Fraser), who is recognized as the park hero. Grayson also has eyes for Andie. This would have been a perfect opportunity to create a love triangle, but it never materializes. It’s not even clear that Surly has any affection for Andie at all. Another missed opportunity involves the humans robbing the bank, which should have been exploited more fully to mirror the animals trying to rob the nut store. Doing so would have given Surly a moment to reflect and possibly lead to a turning point in his loner, reckless ways. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen to any satisfying degree.
The humor is just as shallow. Characters are more annoying than funny. Grayson, as an example, keeps popping up to announce his lines in an irritating, over-the-top manner, only to then cower in fear at the slightest hint of danger. This might be funny once, but this seems to be his only trait throughout the film. There’s also an excruciating scene where audiences are forced to listen to fart noises for uncomfortably too long. Maybe kids will giggle at humor like this, but the screening I attended full of families was rather quiet. That’s not to say that The Nut Job is completely bereft of comedy. There are moments of subtle humor, like when Surly discovers a baby pacifier that he doesn’t need and throws away off-screen. Suddenly, a baby that had been crying in the background noise stops and makes satisfied sounds. There’s also a scuffle with a bird that doesn’t look very happy – some might even call it angry. It’s handled in the appropriate manner. It’s just a shame that these moments of comedic inspiration weren’t the rule instead of the exception.
The biggest issue with The Nut Job is that, despite obviously being set in the United States, the writing feels foreign on a cultural level. But when one considers that one of the production companies is based in Korea, the oddness becomes understandable. This explains why the film takes place in probably late 50’s America, but also has Psy and Gangnam Style as part of the soundtrack.
None of this is to say that the film doesn’t have entertainment value, because it does. It has rich visuals, a story that’s easy to follow, and sometimes endearing characters. But, taken as a whole, it doesn’t compare well to most animated films in recent history. If you really need to keep small children distracted for an hour and change, then this film might do in a pinch.