Over the past 25 years, studios like Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks have steadily raised the bar on animated features. And with it, they've raised audience expectations for animation all around. It's no longer good enough for these pictures to play just to kids -- which makes it harder than ever before for new companies to break through. Nonetheless, that's exactly what ToonBox Entertainment is aiming to do with their first feature length film, The Nut Job.
Directed by Peter Lepeniotis, The Nut Job centers on a curmudgeonly squirrel, fittingly known as Surly. Voiced by Will Arnett, Surly considers himself a loner, shunning acceptance from most of the furry residents of Oakton Central Park. His only friend is a mute and mangy rat named Buddy, with whom he plots elaborate schemes to snatch food. But when one of these plots goes spectacularly wrong, Surly is banished by the park's leader, Raccoon (Liam Neeson). Forced to forge in the city, Surly devises a sly plan to survive the winter. All he has to do is pull of the heist of a lifetime by robbing Maury's Nut Shop!
Before long, screenwriters Lepeniotis and Lorne Cameron manage to loop more of the park crew into Surly's scheme, and a fragile partnership is born, steeped in distrust and potential for betrayal. Yet this isn't the only heist The Nut Job offers. In a clever move, the movie's writers chose not to make Maury's Nut Shop some standard mom and pop shop. Instead, it's a front for some sleazy crooks who are burrowing in the basement as a means to rob the bank next door. This makes the movie overcrowded with characters and peppered with plot holes. But it's hard to complain on that point when The Nut Job manages to be wonderfully fun.
A major element of this film's success is its voice cast. Aside from Arnett (who makes magic with his grumbling tone) and Neeson (whose distinctive voice is weirdly perfect for that of the plotting Raccoon), the ensemble also boasts Brendan Fraser as an arrogant but dopey hero squirrel, Katherine Heigl as the headstrong but underestimated squirrel Andie, and Maya Rudolph as a playful pug named Precious. This cast brings a great deal of energy to the narrative, especially Rudolph, whose face-licking pup is a total cutup and scene-stealer.
Alternately, The Nut Job offers some delightful visual gags, many thanks to the quiet but nonetheless emotive Buddy. While his friendship with Surly lessens the arc of the hero, it also enables the audience an easy way to care for him. Buddy's devotion to Surly is adorable and contagious. One moment, where his heart is briefly broken, was so affecting that I literally sighed aloud. Along with these thoughtful character moments, Lepeniotis manages to punctuate the film with zany action sequences, kiddie-friendly humor like nut puns and fart jokes, and a few pop culture references meant to appeal to older audience members.
While ToonBox's first effort can't really compare to the grandeur or spectacle of something like Frozen, Monsters University, or The Croods, the production company is off to a solid start. A good voice cast brings to life some quirky but lovable characters that rumble through an inventive--albeit convoluted--story. Remarkably, the animators created a distinctive world that offers texture and finesse despite having a budget that is less than a third of Frozen's. Sharp eyes will pick out some cost-cutting clues like the noticeable amount of dialogue that happens off camera, or the avoidance of all but one pop song ("Gangnam Style" by Psy). But overall, The Nut Job is an enjoyable and funny adventure that could prove good family fun.