Hoping to cash in on kids still home for the holidays, “The Nut Job” isn’t a very tough nut to crack. Starring Will Arnett (Arrested Development), Brendan Fraser (Crash), Liam Neeson (Taken), and Katherine Heigl (Knocked Up), this family friendly 3D animated tale from Open Road lacks the creative pizzazz of more established animation houses. Filled with a little too much slapstick rodent debauchery and an overwhelming amount of bathroom humor, 2014’s first animated release cracks, like a walnut, under all the pressure. Okay. Okay. Enough with all of the nut puns.
Set in the fictional urban town of Oakton, “The Nut Job” follows a mischievous squirrel named Surly, voiced by Will Arnett, and his best rat friend Buddy. Living up to his name, Surly isn’t the nicest squirrel in the forest. Perpetually looking out for just himself, the purple animated rodent only cares about one thing: getting enough nuts for the winter. Surly soon hits the jackpot when he discovers a nut store (do these even exist?) and sets out to rob it.
Like all classic heist movies, Surly can’t raid the store alone. Help comes in the form of the woodland creatures of the Oakton Park. Among these animals is a mighty yet absent-minded squirrel named Grayson (Brandon Fraser), the attractive Andie (Katherine Heigel) and a slobbery pug called Precious (Maya Rudolph). Together, the motley crew hatches a plan to steal enough nuts for the entire woodland park to last the winter. The only problem, Surly doesn’t plan on sharing his loot.
Based on a short film by first time director Peter Lepeniotis, it doesn’t take long before the script, written by Lepeniotis and Lorne Cameron (Over The Hedge), runs out of steam. Set up like a typical heist picture ala “The Italian Job” or “Heat”, “The Nut Job” spends a great deal of time preparing for the climactic robbery. But because this is a movie for children, most of this development comes in the form of fart jokes. While the zany actions of Surly and the rest of his friends are fun to watch for five minutes, it’s clear that neither Lepeniotis nor his writing partner expanded the world of his short film well enough to fit the size of a feature length movie.
The writing pair attempts to add another layer to the story by occasionally shifting the focus away from the animal world and placing it in the human realm. This side plot, which consists of yet another robbery (a traditional bank break-in this time), is simply a waste of screen time.
As far as the voice performances go, Arnett, Heigl, and Neeson are effective but don’t deliver anything worth spending time or money on. Arnett, who is no stranger to animation having played parts in “Despicable Me” and G-Force, is by far the most enjoyable of the bunch. His typically deep, snarky dialect fits a little too well within the confines of an uppity squirrel.
On the complete opposite of the spectrum, co-star Brendon Fraser, gives one of the most annoying performances of his career. Speaking like a fraternity brother that got hit in the head with a lacrosse ball one too many times, his Grayson character is so mind numbingly annoying, even his funniest punch-lines land with a dud.
Even if Fraser didn’t add insult to injury by butchering his lines, “The Nut Job” as a whole feels incredibly underdeveloped. In the world of animation, where anything can be drawn, creativity should be boundless. Sadly, Lepeniotis plays it safe with his directorial debut and delivers a final product that really doesn’t bring anything new to cinemagoers.
Very early on in the film, our protagonist Surly Squirrel tells the audience, “let’s not get too nutty around here.” My only wish is that he had. It would have made for a much more enjoyable movie.
“The Nut Job” should be skipped by all but the extremely young and the rodent obsessed. Even though it is rated PG, the most offensive it ever gets is a flatulence scene that lasts about 15 seconds too long.
Rated PG for mild action and rude humor
By David Morris