IHAO on ... The Nut Job
The Nut Job is a rare thing in film: an intelligent, intricate, genre savvy, interesting kids film that has handicapped heroes, no love story, and a protagonist who is not a clear-cut good person and does not become one at the end. It is also a film that is almost completely ruined by a single aspect of the recipe that IS film. Before I dissect the children's film like a frog in seventh grade biology, let's talk about the plot and characters first.
The Nut Job is very much a complicated heist film with all sorts of cartoon woodland critters as our protagonists instead of a bunch of eclectic thieves or down-on-their-luck workers or OCD fellas who are just trying to get their pills. This very much is Over the Hedge meets Flypaper. Our protagonist is a surly squirrel (named Surly) who doesn't quite get along with the rest of the park animals, especially Raccoon, who is the leader of the community. Through a series of circumstances, he ends up kicked from the community and stumbles upon a human bank heist that is using a nut store as their front. So he works on a heist of the nuts as the humans work on a heist of a nearby bank.
The plot is complicated in a wonderful way. Every important prop is always shown but never explicitly so that the audience can put the puzzle pieces together. Every character turn is highlighted perfectly so that they all make sense. Small moments pay off later in the film for the observant watcher, but are not necessary to understand any character's motivations or goals.
The animation studio did incredibly well. Every animal looks great, and MOVES great. It is shocking just how often the animals move like animals. It reminds me of Disney films like the Aristocats and the Jungle Book that worked so hard to have their animals (for the most part) move like real animals. The animation is crisp, and all the visuals work. There are plenty of visual only jokes, and all of them hit perfectly.
The characters are all vivid and interesting, with the only real offender being Katherine Heigl's Andie but even she has more going on than just "love interest," which is a nice change of pace. The "romance" of the film is a deep friendship between Surly and Buddy, his only buddy, a mute rat that he truly cares for, even if he isn't always kind to him. It is a touching friendship, and just another great thing within the storytelling of the film.
So, let's talk about the thing that almost ruins the film: the sound and score. Every. single. piece. of. music. feels out of place. The best songs in the score are merely adequate and still don't quite hit the mark. And everything else is off the wall bonkers and doesn't make any sense. Then, on top of that, every now and again, you get an off the wall sound effect, ala Looney Tunes, that doesn't actually work in the film's reality. Looney Tunes exists in a "cartoon logic" world. Most films try to ground things more, with just a little bit of "cartoon physics" but ultimately they hold tight to their reality to create a stronger cohesion of story. So imagine how odd it is when a pretty well grounded film with the great animation I mentioned before has a rat get thrown into an alley, and you hear him bump around into the trash cans ... and then you hear a cat yowl. It is a pretty standard sound effect joke for cartoons. But in an animated film that is more grounded like this one, it just ... doesn't make any sense. Was there a cat? Did it eat the animal? When the main characters are squirrels and rats and moles and dogs ... hearing a cat just makes you wonder "is that cat joining the film's story?"
Oh, and one other thing. The dialogue is... bad is too strong. But it certainly isn't great. Will Arnet does the best he can, as does Brenden Fraser, but mostly the dialogue is kind of stock or ultimately just perfunctory.
Even with those very very bad elements, the storytelling and plotting of this film, and the overall acting makes this film, that could be a forgotten piece of garbage. But instead we have a ... forgotten piece of pretty good movie, but not great. But I definitely think it is worth the watch. I bet you'll be shocked by how well crafted the film is ... except for its terrible terrible sound. Oh, and get ready for a lot of Gangnam Style.
OH! And there is an amazingly poignant after credits scene that is sad, touching, and one of the best final scenes I've ever seen. It pulls no punches and is ... I just don't know how to describe it without spoiling so many elements of the film. Stick through the credits. It is 100% worth it.