by Scott Renshaw & r & & r & Ice Age: The Meltdown & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n Ice Age: The Meltdown -- as in its hit 2002 predecessor -- the opening and closing sequences are devoted to the misadventures of the twitchy, acorn-obsessed rodent known as Scrat. He appears throughout the feature as well, but it's noteworthy that the filmmakers lead and close on this funky supporting character. The 20th Century Fox marketing department even made Scrat the central figure in the film's poster art. He's there to warm up the audience and to send them out on a comedic high -- because he's not only better than the ostensible protagonists, he's the best thing about the Ice Age movies.

There's a level of creativity involved in the Scrat segments -- pure visual slapstick artistry -- that bears comparison not just to the heyday of the Coyote and Road Runner, but to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. It's something rarely even attempted in an era when the goal of animated filmmaking often seems to be cramming in as much mile-a-minute, gag-laden dialogue as possible between the poop jokes.

Like the original Ice Age, the sequel celebrates the kind of unconventional families that don't fit the red-state profile. Phlegmatic mammoth Manny (Ray Romano), saber-toothed tiger Diego (Denis Leary) and simple-minded sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) are still hanging out together, but their little valley appears threatened by global warming if an ice dam yields to the wall of water behind it. As they head for higher ground, the threesome meet up with Ellie (Queen Latifah), a mammoth who thinks she's a possum because she grew up with adopted brothers Crash (Seann William Scott) and Eddie (Josh Peck). They join forces in their scramble for safety, a weird little romance developing between Manny and the potential mate who may be the last female of his kind.

It might seem a bit strange to build the premise of what is ostensibly a family film around the possibility of species-saving procreation, but I suppose it's just the latest evolution in what is presented as appropriate for kids. Ice Age: The Meltdown comes with a PG rating, and it earns every ounce of it; the first 15 minutes aren't in the books before gags built around the words "dam", "ass" and "crap."

But aside from being crude, Meltdown just isn't particularly interesting. The sequel lacks not just a genuine antagonist -- while climate change may be scary to grown-up liberals, abstract concepts make poor Happy Meal toys -- but nothing in the way of compelling character development either. Everyone shows up to reprise their roles, because sequels of any kind are basically about more of the same.

Fortunately, that also includes Scrat, a bundle of pure neurotic survival drive thwarted by the natural world at every possible turn. Director Carlos Saldanha -- who also directed the Oscar-nominated Scrat short Going Nutty -- crafts a few moments of pure genius, nowhere better than when a cut-out circle of lake ice repeatedly separates Scrat from his "prey." Watching those sequences isn't just enough to make you blow soda out your nose -- it's a reminder of what animated filmmaking could be if those who created them would stop pandering to crude humor or what they think we expect from a sequel. It's time to put Manny, Sid and Diego out to the pasture of natural selection and allow the Ice Age team to focus on Scrat. To do otherwise would be just plain nuts.

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