It was not long ago when Will Arnett mined gold with a curt, hilarious voice-acting role in Pixar’s Ratatouille as intimidating cook Horst, who brags about conquests of killing a man with his thumb. Well, Arnett’s thumb has about as much personality as his dithery voice in The Nut Job, a new animated film where the Canadian actor has the leading role. Here, however, he gives a rather unexpressive tone to Surly, a purple squirrel who is bossy, selfish and has little pity for anyone – even his mute, dependable rat sidekick, Buddy.
Surly is not just a bland protagonist, but he is intensely dislikable and Arnett’s smarmy voice does the protagonist no favors. By the film’s end, you wish that another of the actor’s characters, G.O.B. from Arrested Development, had passed you a “Forget-Me-Now” pill to remove this weak, children-aimed adventure from your memory. The Nut Job feels like a copy of a copy of a terrific Looney Tunes cartoon, except that this one replaces those shorts’ zingers with animal flatulence, clunky exposition and lame nut-related puns.
Arnett’s Surly is a rogue squirrel hoping to bag nuts from a local vendor for the winter and so he abandons his critter friends from Liberty Park to scavenge for food. However, one of his pursuits for protein goes awry and the park tree where his friends live erupts in flames. The raccoon that leads Liberty Park, with the inspired name Raccoon (voiced by Liam Neeson), banishes Surly from the park. Now, the annoying squirrel moves outward into the town of Oakton, which curiously resembles a 1940s Hollywood backlot.
On his own in Oakton, Surly finds a nut store with a supply that he hopes can carry him through the winter. Along with Buddy, Surly begins devising a plan to steal the massive nut supply in the parlor for his own gain – but without any intention of helping his starving woodland friends, who are now homeless and hungry at the park.
The massive nut supply also turns out to be a ruse in a subplot involving human gangsters – who, like the rest of the animation, look copy and pasted from an old Warner Bros. cartoon. The mobsters (led by King, voiced by Stephen Lang) plan to tunnel underground and rob the bank next door to the nut parlor, and then fill the vault they will rob with the nuts. Director Peter Lepeniotis, working with co-writer Lorne Cameron (Over the Hedge), could have let the two heists, the animal and the human one, parallel each other in a more ingenious way. Sadly though, the criminals are just as blandly realized as the critters, so the dueling capers do not hold much interest.
The Nut Job is a feature-length extension of animator Peter Lepeniotis’s 2005 short Surly Squirrel; however, even at 86 minutes, the film plods along as a charmless and uninspired affair that only makes its audience crave the better animated films and characters that it rips off. Several of the actors, who may have agreed to the script on the condition that it allows their young kids to hear mommy or daddy, do not have enough gusto in their voice to register with the animation. The mouths of certain animals do not open widely either, making it look as if the characters are munching on a triple-decker peanut butter sandwich as they speak.
As for the script, it is filled with lazy writing, which results in tired characters. Besides the aforementioned unpleasantries of Surly, there is Raccoon, a third-rate Scar rip-off who hopes that starving the park’s animal population will make them more subservient to his power. Meanwhile, sympathetic squirrel companion Andie (Katherine Heigl) and a cocky squirrel named Grayson (Brendan Fraser) who wants the ladies to marvel at his bravado, have little autonomy within the film – except t0 help the protagonist accept his flaws.
Lepeniotis paces all of the jokes and one-liners ineptly, so even if an audience were to laugh, they would miss the next bit. The jokes have no room to take in potential laughter. Since my preview audience failed to chuckle at even the film’s basest, broadest amusements, maybe the filmmakers knew that the jokes were stinkers to begin with and had no interest in expanding The Nut Job’s running time any further. It is as if the film were allergic to its own nutty sense of humour.
The Nut Job is a lazy rehash of story elements from finer animated stories like Ratatouille, Ice Age and various Looney Tunes episodes. The film’s most disarming quality, though, is also its strangest, an end credits sequence featuring an animated Psy performing “Gangnam Style” alongside the cartoon ensemble. (Yes, I am serious… and don’t call me Surly.) The explanation: the animated film was a Canadian-American-South Korean production, as well as South Korea’s most expensive animated undertaking to date. Still, showing their nation’s biggest crossover star serves no purpose. “Gangnam Style” is a stupefying bad choice for an end credits song, one that already feels as dated as the film’s animation.
Flat and harmless, The Nut Job is an animated movie without the energy to entertain kids or the inspiration to engage their parents. The animation is haphazard, the characters are either dim or despicable and the story is a lazy variation of parts from better animated films. Buddy’s uncanny resemblance to Remy from Ratatouille only reminds us of what the chef said in Pixar’s 2007 classic: “A cook makes. A thief takes.” The Nut Job is, alas, a film about thieving animals that steal from better, fresher and richer material.
With dull characters and a hackneyed story, The Nut Job is an animated comedy allergic to originality and excitement.