A decade-old short film gets laboriously stretched out in 'The Nut Job'
The Nut Job Open Road Films
Director: Peter Lepeniotis
Screenplay: Peter Lepeniotis and Lorne Cameron
Starring: The voices of Will Arnett, Katherine Heigl, Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson, Stephen Lang, Maya Rudolph and Jeff Dunham
Rated PG / 1 hour, 25 minutes
January 17, 2014
(out of four)
The Nut Job began as a short film and probably should have remained that way.
That it doesn't, in 85 minutes, cover much more ground than its 11-minute predecessor should be evidence enough. The longer version is guilty of the worst impulses of modern animated filmmaking, not the least of which is developing a half-baked story that never required a feature-length runtime in the first place. Its relentless action and breakneck pacing are meant to conceal this fact, reinforcing the illusion that something is actually happening. In other words, this movie is one long distraction.
Writer/director Peter Lepeniotis' original 2005 short, Surly Squirrel, combined dueling heist plots - one involving the titular Surly and his rat sidekick trying to snag a discarded piece of pizza under the noses of their fellow park animals; the other involving a gang of crooks robbing a bank across the street. Cheaply animated but likable in its irreverence, Surly was nothing if not efficient in its storytelling.
Its feature-length incarnation can't say the same. Despite a fleshed-out conflict and a fleet of additional characters, The Nut Job always feels like it's rushing around with nowhere to go. When the extended third-act chase sequence inevitably rolls around, it doesn't feel like a dramatic crescendo, simply because so much of the movie is one variety of chase or another. The filmmakers just bide their time, keeping their furry protagonists in perpetual motion - chase this, chase that; escape this, escape that - as the story itself runs in circles.
The expanded scope of the story also disrupts the balance between the two sets of characters - the park animals and the human crooks - and all but does away with the clever juxtaposition of their stories found in the original short. There's a key moment in Surly Squirrel, just after Surly has been discovered red-handed as the pizza thief and has been surrounded by his fellow park inhabitants, united in protest and getting angrier by the second. "Drop the pizza!" they shout. Then the camera quickly pans out to reveal, just across the street, a sea of cop cars swarming around the bank, suddenly rendering the animals' grievances almost inaudible against the police megaphone and sirens.
There is no moment quite so graceful as that in The Nut Job, which simply mashes its two storylines together without ever commenting on the way the two contrast one another. I realize Lepeniotis - a former Disney and Pixar animator - had to make a number of creative decisions and go in new directions to expand his short into a feature; but by the time he fleshed out the story of Surly and his animal antagonists, the purpose of having the bank robbers around had been all but lost. All we're left with is a flimsy narrative complication that forces the two stories to overlap.
The Surly in this version - brought to life by the dulcet tones of Will Arnett - has bigger dreams than a mere slice of pizza. His target is an entire nut superstore - peanuts, cashews, almonds, you name it. It's all there for the taking, and - along with his mute, stooge-like companion Buddy (a rat) - he has designs on taking all he can and stuffing himself all winter. The only problem is, the owners are a group of bank robbers using the shop as their base of operations as they plan a bank job, which involves using their bags of peanuts the way Indiana Jones used that bag of sand when he tried to steal the Golden Idol of Fertility.
Finding such a treasure trove is actually a stroke of luck for Surly, who has been kicked out of the park for being too much of a rogue independent, always out to find food for himself without regard for anyone else's needs. This drew the ire of the slyly dictatorial leader of the park animals, Raccoon (voiced by Liam Neeson), as well as the similarly disgruntled but more ethically minded Andie (Katherine Heigl). The last straw came after Surly's ill-fated attempt to rip off a mobile peanut stand ended with the fiery explosion of the great tree in which Raccoon and the other animals had been storing their food reserves for winter.
And so Surly is exiled from the park and sent into the treacherous big city. Where he promptly finds the biggest score of his life and proceeds to get involved in conflict with the crooks, an overly friendly guard dog (voiced by Maya Rudolph) and even the park animals, who discover the nut store for themselves and want a piece of the action, too. What proceeds is a tame collectivism vs. individualism commentary wrapped inside a dead-on-arrival heist tale.
Needless to say, given the title and the plot, Lepeniotis and co-writer Loren Cameron inject the film with more than its fair share of "nut"-based puns. Every character in the film is referred to as "nuts" at least twice, and that's not even scratching the surface. And yet my lasting memory of The Nut Job was not the non-stop wordplay, but the baffling inclusion of a full animated Gangnam Style music video during the closing credits, featuring dancing not only from all the characters in the movie, but from an animated version of Psy himself. I'll give it to the makers of this movie: They know their demographic to a remarkable degree; the audience at my screening was full of small children who flipped the bleep out when the song began, and proceeded to sing and dance along in the aisles for the entirety of the sequence. If nothing else, The Nut Job's legacy will be that it extended Psy's proverbial 15 minutes by at least another three or four.