by Ed Symkus

The official reason for giving this oh-so-G-rated film a PG rating is for "mild peril." What that will do is exclude -- under the guidance of any strict parents who adhere to the advice of the ridiculous members who make up the MPAA -- the only people who will get the slightest rise out of it, those who are too young to know better.

This is a very cute film, telling yet another version of the same kids' film we've seen over and over -- it's not very far from either The Land Before Time or Dinosaur -- about a group of animals on a long journey, trying to avoid "peril" and getting to know each other on the way.

The difference between this new one and some others is the look -- some really fine computer-generated animation, the kind that makes one gawk at how real the hair on the backs of these characters looks. Too bad, though, that most family-film audiences have already been spoiled by the likes of the Toy Stories and Shrek, among others. There's just nothing new here.

Yet that's probably fine with the youngsters who come to see it. The heroes are cuddly, and the bad guys are, you know, cartoon bad guys. They're big and mean and ugly, and they threaten to do awful things. But there's always one of them around ever ready to change allegiances and make sure everything comes out okay.

The plot this time involves not the lengthy line of animals setting off for more fertile grounds as the cold weather starts settling in, but those few who, for reasons mostly unknown, are going the other way, right back into the ice, and end up on a rescue mission. It starts off quite wonderfully, with a funny, action-packed segment about a squirrel-like creature that will do anything to hold onto his prize acorn. Much havoc ensues in the first few minutes, maybe even a little "peril." But despite what the little guy's fate appears to be, all works out well, as he becomes a running gag right up to the end of the film.

All audiences will like him. But that's probably not the case with just about every other character, from the patient but dull Manfred the Mammoth (voice of Ray Romano) to the obnoxious Sid the Sloth (voice of John Leguizamo) and the possibly bad, possibly good Diego the Sabertooth (Denis Leary). This is the unlikely trio that's thrown together on this cold road trip. Manfred is the hero, Diego is the villain, Sid is the comic relief.

Sid is also the character with the most lines of dialogue, and the character who will separate this film from the success of its predecessors.

Toy Story and Shrek were tremendous hits because they had crossover appeal. They were equally enjoyed -- for very different reasons -- by kids and adults. For kids, they were fun to watch, with crazy characters and wild situations and great visuals. For adults, the same applied, but they were also engaging and witty on a slightly more -- forgive the expression -- intellectual level. They had all kinds of jokes that no kid would get, and that didn't matter to anyone but the adults who did get them.

Not only is that element completely missing from Ice Age, the film is also saddled with this insufferable character, whose animators have him mugging his way through the entire production at high decibel levels, and who is pushed even further into annoyance by Leguizamo's over-the-top performance. If given the freedom to pull out the stops, he'll head right for the realms of the inane.

Even the youngest of viewers, viewers barely able to figure out what's going on, might give a passing thought to how much nicer this film would be if the sabertooth tiger decided to make a snack out of the sloth, if only to shut him up.

But if you have young kids, then you have people in your home who will want to see this. So here's what to do. Get some trusty friends together and draw straws. The loser gets to chaperone all the neighborhood boys and girls to a matinee showing. The rest of you can go along to the cineplex and maybe take in a screening of Mel's war movie, if you like the serious stuff, or perhaps you can finally catch up with The Lord of the Rings. Since I've run out of things to say about Ice Age, here's a special plug for that tale of Middle Earth -- it's much better the second time.

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