The Nut Job (2014)


USA/South Korea/Canada. 2014.


Director – Peter Lepeniotis, Screenplay – Lorne Cameron & Peter Lepeniotis, Story – Daniel Woo, Producers – W.K. Jung & Graham Moloy, Music – Paul Intson, CGI Supervisor – Brad Falk, Art Direction – Ian Hastings. Production Company – Gulfstream Pictures/Red Rover International, Inc./Toonbox Entertainment


Will Arnett (Surly), Katharine Heigl (Andie), Brendan Fraser (Grayson), Liam Neeson (Raccoon), Maya Rudolph (Precious), Stephen Lang (King), Jeff Dunham (Mole), Gabriel Iglesias (Jimmy), James Rankin (Fingers), Scott Yaphe (Lucky), Joe Pingue (Johnny), Sarah Gadon (Lana), Julie Lemieux (Girl Scout)


With the announcement by Raccoon, the leader of the animals that live in the park, that there is not enough food in store to last the winter, the self-proclaimed hero Grayson and the more practical Andie, set out to remedy this by mounting a raid on a nut cart. However, the raid is thrown awry by the squirrel Surly who refuses to be part of the park’s community-minded efforts and wants the nuts for himself. The squabbling between the two sides causes the cart to go out of control and crash into the tree in the park, destroying the animals’ entire food supply. Surly is blamed for this and Raccoon pushes a vote to banish him from the park. Accompanied by his loyal, rat companion Buddy, Surly tries to survive in the streets. He then comes across a nut shop and realises that this is all his dreams come true. He and Buddy scope out the shop, later reluctantly being forced by Andie to agree to share the bounty. Unbeknownst to them, the humans that run the nut shop are using it as a front to tunnel into and rob a neighbouring bank. As both humans and animals plan their capers to rob their respective businesses, both schemes start and counter-schemes start coming into conflict.

The Nut Job is an independently made entry into the increasingly lucrative family entertainment animation stakes at the box-office. It is a debut feature for US director Peter Lepeniotis, who has previously worked as an animator with both Disney and Pixar. Lepeniotis had previously made the genesis of The Nut Job as the eleven-minute short animated film Squirly Squirrel (2005).

I went into The Nut Job with low expectations. The premise seemed not a whole lot different to DreamWorks’ Over the Hedge (2006) from a few years earlier, which had talking animals grouping together to conduct a raid on human food supplies (and was also co-written by this film’s screenwriter Lorne Cameron). The Nut Job spins the idea through the cinematic cliches of the heist movie with a double plot that parallels the animals trying to break into the nut store and the crooks who run the nut store trying to rob the bank next door.

For a time, The Nut Job seemed exactly like it was being a formula family film – and it largely is. The first twenty or so minutes, in particular with the sequences careening around the park on a runaway nut cart, seem exactly like the canned piece of slapstick that get boiler-plated onto the utterly formulaic films from Blue Sky Studios – the Ice Age sequels, Rio (2011) etc. It feels exactly like one of Blue Sky’s films in its pacing, the easy cutout characters and comedy relief, the pitching of humour to the small digit age groups. The character of the unspeaking rat Buddy even seems to have been photocopied wholesale from the title character in Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007). But then a strange thing happened. For me, it was maybe about the point where we have a scene where the Liam Neeson-voiced raccoon pushes for voting Squirly out of the park and some of the other animals start muttering about the Rule of Law. “Rule of Law?” I was thinking. “How peculiar to see such an abstract concept playing out in a children’s film?” And it is from this point that you see The Nut Job is doing things that are often very different to what is expected. Indeed, there are often times that the film seems on the verge of turning into a broad political allegory – the evil but populist leader who manipulates the populace by creating an artificial scarcity and sabotaging efforts to provide supplies for all.

The surprise is for a zero expectation film is that The Nut Job ends up taking the essential formula of the Blue Sky film and does it rather well. All of the characters end up engaging – with much of the show being stolen by the bulldog voiced by a quiet spoken Maya Rudolph. The caper plot twists and turns with dextrous appeal, although the complaint might be that the last quarter of the film comes with so many reversals, betrayals and twists that it becomes exhausting to keep up with for an adult and you keep wondering how the moppet audiences will cope.

The humour works well and there is a welcome relief in that the film never sees the need to go for the easy irritating relief of dropping pop culture gags and smartass one-liners. This automatically boosts The Nut Job‘s likeability in comparison to an alarming number of other animated films around at the moment. The only time it does deign to do so is the end credits when bizarrely enough we get an animated version of South Korean pop star Psy as he does a rendition of his mega-hit Gangnam Style (2012). It is well-disguised fact but The Nut Job is a substantially South Korean film – it is co-produced by Korean animation studio Red Rover Entertainment and has a substantial number of Korean end credits even though the setting, characters and voice actors all make a play for US audiences. Psy’s appearance is oddly out of place but one supposes you can hardly blame the Koreans for jumping aboard the topicality of the one mass crossover phenomenon to emerge from the country in recent years.

The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature (2017) was a sequel.

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