Animation: 'The Nut Job' is full of crunchy goodness
On January 24, my sister Sherry took me in my wheelchair to see The Nut Job at the Pacific Theatres 18-Plex at the Glendale Americana at Brand “shopping community”.
The movie was released on January 17, and for over a week I had been reading reviews on animation-community websites that were uniformly negative. They did not just pan it, they hysterically reviled it. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 12% favorable professional rating:
Hampered by an unlikable central character and source material stretched too thin to cover its brief running time, The Nut Job will provoke an allergic reaction in all but the least demanding moviegoers. (RT critic consensus)
“Anyone who doubts the truth of the bromide that January is the time studios trot out films that would otherwise be unreleasable should take a look at The Nut Job, a CG feature that has all the originality and individuality of a Dixie Cup,” begins Charles Solomon’s review on Animation Scoop. “[…] Numerous, predictable contretemps ensue […] the storytelling is simply inept […] The animation is unimpressive at best. […] The Nut Job was made in Canada and Korea, reportedly in association with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of the Republic of Korea - probably because sitting through the film makes the 12-hour flying time between Los Angeles and Seoul seem brief.”
Conversely, the box office of The Nut Job has been good – fortunately, or I would have wondered whether the critics were talking about the same feature that I saw.
Rotten Tomatoes’ audience rating is 49%. “It was a great weekend for subpar family CG films starring animals,” reported Amid Amidi on the Cartoon Brew on January 19.
Peter Lepeniotis’ The Nut Job, the first animated film released by Open Road Films, the new distribution company launched by AMC Theatres and Regal Entertainment Group, opened in third place with a robust $20.6 million (estimated). […] No one had anticipated the film performing so well, especially after its poor reception with both critics and audiences. […] As it stands, The Nut Job is on track to become the highest-grossing Open Road film yet, and a sure sign that they’ll be releasing more second-rate animated films in the future.
Amidi’s prediction was borne out when it was announced on Cartoon Brew on the 23rd that The Nut Job 2 has been greenlit for production, with its release tentatively scheduled for January 15, 2016.
The Nut Job is set in the fictional city of Oakton; location not specified, but somewhere expecting a harsh winter since the local wildlife is worrying about starving when the late-autumn pickings are not enough to support them through winter. “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!” screams a panicky mouse. The animals, under the leadership of Raccoon in the town park, are ordered to search for food and to expect strict rationing during winter – all except purple Surly Squirrel and his mute rat buddy, Buddy. Surly is an arrogant loner who boasts that he is only looking out for Number 1, which does not make him popular with the other animals.
Surly and Buddy try to rob a roasted peanut cart, successfully until Precious the pug tears a nitrogen tube loose, jetting the cart across the park and into the animals’ central tree, where it explodes, destroying what little food the animals have saved. Raccoon blames Surly and orders him banished – apparently inexplicably, until you consider that Raccoon’s true goal is not to help the other animals but to rule them. He is using the destruction of their food as an excuse to get rid of the one animal who will not accept his leadership. He assigns the leadership of the food-finding mission to Andie, an orange girl squirrel who is uneasy about the railroading of Surly, and to the incredibly self-centered but dim gray squirrel Grayson, who is convinced that Andie is in love with him, and that he is responsible for what little success Surly has had.
Surly, wallowing in self-pity, and Buddy find a treasure-trove of nuts in Maury’s Nut Shop, an old business (est. 1891) that is apparently out of business and closed. The audience knows that it has been bought as a front by bank robbers, who plan to tunnel in from it to the bank next door. Precious is a dog from the pound that the robbers have adopted to help their disguise; they do not really care for her. The movie relates the mishaps between Surly and Buddy; Andie who likes Surly but is devoted to the other animals’ welfare; the narcissistic Grayson's accidentally fouling everybody up; Raccoon’s second gang of the fall-guy ultra-nearsighted Mole and Jimmy & Johnny the groundhog bruisers, whom he tells to get rid of Surly who he accuses of stealing from the animals; and the four robbers – King the leader, Lucky, a human Jimmy, and Fingers the gunman -- who feud among themselves.
Events escalate to Precious switching to Surly's side, the unmasking of Raccoon, the apparent deaths of Surly and Raccoon, and the arrival of the nuts that Surly had rescued to the other animals, which Grayson takes credit for. Andie is on hand when Surly revives, and she is about to reveal that he is the real hero, but he says that would ruin his tough-guy image and he would rather help as an unseen secret hero. (The viewer really has to watch all through the closing credits and the final coda.)
The Nut Job does not pretend to be original. Director and co-writer Peter Lepeniotis first created it as Surly Squirrel, a 10-minute, 55-second independent film in 2005. It was successful enough that he was able to get the backing to turn it into this 2014 86-minute feature. The production companies are a consortium of Gulfstream Pictures in Hollywood (financing), ToonBox Entertainment in Toronto (animation), Red Rover Co. International in Seoul (co-financier), and a plethora of other financiers and animation studios in South Korea organized by Red Rover; and distributed in the U.S. by Open Road Films. Three of the South Korean sponsors are the Korea Venture Investment Corporation, the Korean Small and Medium Business Administration, and the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism of the Republic of Korea. This may explain why, in the movie’s closing credits, all the characters plus an animated Psy, the popular South Korean musician-dancer, break into “Gangnam Style”. The feature is co-written by Lepeniotis and Lorne Cameron, who wrote Pixar’s Ratatouille and co-wrote DreamWorks’ Over the Hedge.
It is intriguing to compare the almost-11-minute Surly Squirrel and the 86-minute The Nut Job. In Surly Squirrel, Surly and Buddy are never out for anyone but themselves; Raccoon is not a villain; Buddy has a large speaking role; there is no love interest; the pigeons have a much larger role; and the bank robbers are lookalikes with no individual personalities. To expand the short into a feature, a love interest and more supporting characters were added; the robbers were given individual roles and personalities; Surly’s unsympathetic personality was made more family-friendly; and he was given a more deliberate villain to oppose.
Okay, The Nut Job is not a perfect film – but so what? Why pick on it? Animated kids’ films are usually full of plot holes, but the critics ignore them. How many animated features in the last few years have had plots of naïve protagonists discovering that their childhood heroes or apparent heroes are really the villains? Pixar’s Up, DreamWorks’ Turbo, Sony’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Disney’s Frozen? At least Raccoon looks suspicious from the beginning.
Are the squirrels too obviously color-coded? Why doesn’t Buddy talk except for a couple of words at the end, to show that he could’ve talked all along if he’d wanted to? Why do the modern bank robbers need Fingers, a stereotypical 19th-century shootist? Why do the bank robbers feel that they need Precious the pug to improve their disguise? When and why do the sinister feral rats become Raccoon’s cannon-fodder henchmen; and is Raccoon's real lieutenant, the big red cardinal, any more than an Angry Birds gag? Is Surly’s conversion from self-centered egoist to caring-for-others philanthropist not sufficiently convincing?
I could list as many questions and inconsistencies in animated classics that nobody has complained about. In Disney’s Pinocchio, how come Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket can walk along the ocean bottom for hours to look for Monstro the whale, but Pinoke quickly drowns on the surface while escaping? In Beauty and the Beast, Beauty ties her horse to the Beast’s palace gate before going in, and apparently forgets about taking care of him for weeks or months until she is ready to leave.
Does Buddy look too much like Remi in Ratatouille? But Ratatouille was released in June 2007, and Surly Squirrel in August 2005. Ah, but the producers could have changed Buddy’s design into a ripoff of Remi’s. Yeah, but look at Surly Squirrel for yourselves, and consider that one of the points of expanding the short into a feature was to have more money to upgrade the CGI design – like, to add fur. Also, computer graphics have gotten a lot more sophisticated between 2005 and 2013. It's hard to keep one realistic unclothed rat from looking very much like another.
Practically all of the complaints made about The Nut Job are things that only animation experts and devotees will notice, not the average family audience. Turn off your nitpick compiler and just enjoy a fine Furry movie.
P.S.: On its second week out, The Nut Job was again #3 in the Top Ten, grossing $12,101,118 more for a total of $40,056,363 as of January 28.
P.P.S.: On its third week out, it has only fallen to 4th place in the Top Ten, making $7,278,450 more for a total box office gross of $49,911,445 to date.
P.P.P.S.: The fourth week: The LEGO Movie and the live-action The Monuments Men and Vampire Academy have knocked The Nut Job down from fourth to eight place, but it’s still in the box office Top Ten. It grossed $3,753,080 more for a total to date of $55,025,744. It’s just about to pass Free Birds, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, and Escape from Planet Earth. Its budget of $42,800,000 has been surpassed, and it’s all gravy from here on. And this is not counting the international grosses and the eventual DVD sales. Not bad for a movie that the vast majority of the critics panned savagely.
P.P.P.P.S.: Week 5: The Nut Job is finally out of the Top Ten grossers of the week – it fell to #15 – but it still made $1,838,887 more, for a total to date of $58,839,503. It has passed up Free Birds, Legends of the Guardians, and Escape from Planet Earth, and is now almost even with Surf’s Up’s $58,867,694. (Thanks for the information, Box Office Mojo.)
Dum-de-dum-de-dum. I wonder how many weekly updates I can add before Flayrah finally posts my review?
P.P.P.P.P.S.: Week 6. The Nut Job has fallen from #15 to #16. It grossed another $1,066,564 for a total to date of $59,906,067. Surf's Up has been passed, and Happy Feet 2 at $64,006,466 is the next target.
Well! With a glancing putdown of The Nut Job, Cartoon Brew announces Yellowbird, a new French anthropomorphic animated feature that may come to the U.S. later this year. This appears to be one of several foreign anthro animated features to compete for the honor of being "the Ernest et Célestine of 2014", designed by the director of Ernest et Célestine. It sounds and looks encouraging.